Maine people value education. In 2003, more than 72 percent of voters said yes to the state funding 55 percent of the cost of public education.

But since 2008, the state share has declined to 46.6 percent. This matters because state funding of schools is a more equitable way to finance education than through widely varying property taxes in each community. State funding has the potential to improve education for Maine as a whole, and it keeps us out of legal battles about inequitable school funding that have plagued many other states. Alternatively, reducing state funding for schools puts an undue burden on local communities that have to raise local taxes or cut services in order to make up the difference for what the state is obligated to contribute.

Clearly, some communities are better able than others to absorb these cuts by raising local property taxes. That’s why state funding cuts can significantly increase differences in per-pupil school spending, further reinforcing the reality that where children grow up — their ZIP code — has a greater influence on the quality of their education and their future than other factors. Per-pupil spending in some parts of Maine — such as on Mount Desert Island ($21,985 in MSAD 76) and Isleboro ($25,375) — is nearly three times greater than elsewhere in the state ($8,802 in Machias and $8,782 in Orrington).

Investments in education targeted to reach students from families in poverty can increase lifetime earnings by 25 percent and decrease poverty in adulthood by 20 percent, according to research published by the National Bureau of Economic Research. This, then, should be a primary focus for the newly formed Commission to Reform Public Education Funding and Improve Student Performance in Maine.

This commission, which is focused on Maine’s school funding formula, has the potential for huge impacts on local communities. The first public meeting was held Monday at York County Community College in Wells. The public needs to keep an eye on the data and hold our public policymakers accountable.

There were more than 30 members of the public present Monday with three television news channels and 12 of the 15 commission members present at this first meeting held in public session. The commission meeting materials posted for the April 25 meeting that was not open to the public report that school funding in Maine has increased 26 percent in the last 10 years, but that’s because those figures don’t take inflation into account. When adjusted for inflation, funding has actually decreased by more than $1.9 million, or 0.7 percent.

Another group called Educate Maine, a statewide, business-led coalition, has committed to increasing educational outcomes for all Maine children irrespective of ZIP code. Educate Maine plans to soon release a second policy brief. The group is advocating for seven strategies to improve career and college readiness for Maine students. Each strategy has several related policy proposals designed to create a comprehensive approach to improving education in Maine with a focus on narrowing the achievement gap between students living in poverty and their more economically advantaged peers. The proposals in this document will be research-based. For example, the document cites research from University of Maine economist Philip Trostel that demonstrates that a $26,200, per-student investment in preschool education can result in $140,000 in taxpayer lifetime benefits, for a 434 percent rate of return. That’s a good investment!

The Educate Maine policy recommendations illustrate a comprehensive approach to ensuring success for our future generations from prenatal care to family and caretaker support, health care, quality early childhood and K-12 schooling, along with high-quality summer programs. These targeted investments would cost $4,230 more per child in poverty as calculated by a task force at Teachers College at Columbia University.

One opportunity for increasing resources for our schools is a ballot initiative this fall, Question 2, which calls for households earning over $200,000 per year to pay $30 of every $1,000 earned above $200,000. It is calculated that this would generate an additional $157 million annually. This initiative could help address some of the need for resources in our schools.

There is great consensus from public officials, researchers and citizens that investment in our public education system is important. The challenges are to utilize these resources most effectively and equitably to ensure that the state as a whole is able to move forward in its educational attainment.

Flynn Ross, Ed.D. is associate professor of teacher education and coordinator of the Extended Teacher Education Program at the University of Southern Maine. She is co-leader of the Maine chapter of the Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear in the BDN every other week.