In 2004, through a ballot initiative, voters asked the state of Maine to fund schools at a level of 55 percent of the total cost of education. Mainers voted this way so all children in Maine, no matter their families’ income level, could get a top education. Nonetheless, since 2004, the state has failed each year to fund schools at this level.
For the 2015-2016 school year, the state funded schools at a level of 47.5 percent, according to Stand Up For Students campaign. The difference between what voters said the Legislature should fund and what it did fund last year is $154 million statewide. This is a lot of money, and it is the children of Maine who suffer.
Thanks to a group of teachers, parents and students who have banded together to get the Stand Up for Students initiative on the November ballot, Maine voters will have the opportunity to get schools the funding they need.
Many less affluent districts have saved money in recent years by reducing the number of teachers and support personnel in their schools. They frequently accomplish this reduction by opting not to replace teachers who retire and by offering incentives for teachers to retire earlier. With fewer teachers, adults working in schools shoulder ever-larger caseloads of students, which in turn means less individual attention for students, as well as lower job satisfaction for teachers.
The cost to educate children rises each year for the same reason household expenses rise each year: cost of living increases. Fuel for buses, furniture for classrooms, building repairs, basic supplies such as pencils and paper and books, insurance costs, all the incidentals such as toilet paper — each year these essentials become more expensive. The less affluent districts in the state have been disproportionately affected by this because they have fewer resources to fall back on in times of need and little help from the state. They spend what money local taxes are able to raise on bare necessities, leaving none left for the ingredients that make for a top education.
An option for saving money favored by many districts is the cutting or trimming of programs such as advanced placement courses, art, music, world languages and technical education. The exception to this trend have been wealthier districts, where taxpayers and benefactors have filled the financial hole left by the state, that have saved — and even expanded — these programs. The result is great inequity in these important programming areas. Wealthier children enjoy a well-rounded education that helps them develop fully and prepares them to compete and relate with their peers nationally and globally while children from less advantaged districts are left with a bare-bones education.
Some will counter that the programs that have been cut or trimmed are frills anyhow — not important for children and an unnecessary expense. If that were truly the case, then why do all the sons and daughters of the powerful — in this state and this nation — attend schools that offer programs rich in the arts, advanced placement courses, world languages and music? We should remember the world adults live in now is not the same as the world in which we were raised. Whether we like it, because of the nature of life in our times, students who grow up in Maine, even if they stay here and eventually raise families, will be greatly disadvantaged if they receive an education inferior to their peers both nationally and abroad.
Professional development for teachers is another giant-size key to the quality of their practice. Districts often pinch pennies by regularly freezing professional development money. One huge cost associated with cuts to professional development is that teachers stagnate, and this affects student learning. We would never think of cutting surgeons off from high-quality professional development — quite the opposite. We want our surgeons to be the most highly trained they can be. The same should be true for teachers. Remember that children are our most valuable natural resource.
On Nov. 8, Maine voters will once again have a chance to equalize opportunity in Maine by insisting the Legislature move to fund schools adequately by imposing a 3 percent surtax on annual income over $200,000. It is very important that all Mainers vote in favor of this measure. In the great state of Maine we do not want a gap of opportunity between the wealthy and everyone else; all children should receive an equal education. A vote for a surtax on our wealthiest residents to ensure the state meets its 55 percent mandate for public education for all is a vote for equal opportunity in Maine.
Kathreen Harrison is a public school teacher in Maine. She writes the Rethinking Education blog on bangordailynews.com.