AUGUSTA, Maine — Education reformers often say that you can’t improve student outcomes by simply spending more money on education, but an exhaustive study delivered this week to the Legislature’s Education Committee suggested Maine needs to spend at least $327 million more per year on public schools.
Lawmakers who reviewed the report Tuesday seemed to be leaning away from attempting to adopt its core recommendation, though their intentions will become more clear when they revisit the issue when the Legislature convenes in January.
California-based Lawrence O. Picus & Associates has spent the past year studying Maine’s Essential Programs and Services model, which defines how much money state government contributes to public education and what schools should be teaching to meet Maine’s Learning Results benchmarks and the more widely used Common Core State Standards, which Maine has adopted.
The $450,000 study’s conclusions were centered on the argument that Maine isn’t spending enough on public education. Picus, who was hired as the result of a Republican-sponsored resolve in 2012 that was enacted by Gov. Paul LePage, says in order to meet state and federal education standards and provide a quality education for all students, Maine is underspending on education by some $327 million per year, the bulk of which should be coming from state government.
The call for higher spending comes despite the fact that Maine’s overall public school enrollment is declining.
The report’s recommendation, which Picus called its “evidence-based model,” is based on public education methods that have been shown to work in other states and around the world.
The $327 million figure is a significant increase from the $260 million spending increase discussed by Picus in late October when the firm delivered a partial report.
Between state and local funding, Maine’s prekindergarten through 12th-grade public schools cost approximately $2 billion a year.
The bulk of the additional spending recommended by Picus would be for additional teacher training; implementing prekindergarten programs in every district; reducing class sizes at the elementary level; hiring mentors for teachers and specialists to work individually with struggling students; and increasing funding to districts for each student who qualifies for free or reduced-cost school lunches.
One of the study’s major goals was to recommend a funding formula that would more equitably distribute state aid to districts in both affluent and poorer communities. Picus found that the state’s EPS model already has adjustments to accomplish that at the district level. It suggests strengthening the state’s circuit breaker program, which provides property tax relief to low-income property owners, to target financial relief on a family-by-family basis.
Lawmakers on the Education Committee and others involved in Tuesday’s hearings spoke frankly about the fact that there is not enough money in state government to increase spending on the scale the Picus report recommends and were already talking about prioritizing.
Nancy Perkins, chairwoman of the Maine Board of Education, suggested to lawmakers that more funding isn’t likely.
“To be perfectly honest, it always comes down to money … but can we really afford a fully blown evidence based model?” she said.
Rep. Brian Hubbell, D-Bar Harbor, said that among the valuable data contained in the report was the reassurance that the state’s EPS model isn’t as flawed as some perceive it to be.
“The report tells me that compared to other states, the model we have here in Maine is decent; we’ve learned from this that [the funding model] isn’t worth tinkering with,” he said. “It also shows that we’ve been underestimating what it takes to educate Maine kids.”
Rep. Michael McClellan, R-Raymond, said adopting the full financial recommendations in the report is impossible given the state’s financial situation but that lawmakers — including fiscal conservatives — will have to compromise if they want to improve education in Maine.
“It will certainly take some political courage to do the right thing for the state,” he said. “Our rural communities have certainly suffered and I hope we can craft something meaningful that works. … But I don’t see this as an invitation to go spent a lot more money.”
Rep. Matthea Daughtry, D-Brunswick, a member of the Education Committee, said the expense would be worth it.
“Educators know that they’ve been getting short-changed,” she said. “Education is the best investment we can make.”