Ensuring all of our children have access to a quality education is essential for Maine’s future. Quality education helps ensure the development of a competitive workforce and saves money in the long run. The costs of a lack of education are well documented; with health-related costs alone, a high school dropout incurs about $100,000 more over the course of his or her lifetime than a high school graduate.
Last month, legislators from both parties who sit on the Education and Cultural Affairs Committee committed to living up to a long-standing state law and agreed that the state should cover 55 percent of school costs. This is an important step toward ensuring that all children across our state have access to a high-quality education. If the state actually follows through, it will also mark an important step toward keeping Maine from out of legal cases concerning school funding equity in which so many states have become embroiled over time, including Connecticut, Kansas, Kentucky and Massachusetts.
Less than 10 percent of education funding comes from the federal government, which means that the rest is covered by money raised from state and local taxes. When adjusted for inflation, the amount of school funding covered by the state has declined by $1.1 million over the last decade. In that same time, the amount of education spending covered by municipal property taxes rose by more than $111 million, when adjusted for inflation, to compensate for state funding stagnation.
In nominal terms, over the past decade, the state increased its overall contribution to public schools by $19 million between 2008 and 2017 while local taxpayers increased their share of the spending by $234 million.
These figures show a clear shift of education costs to municipalities, which places a significant burden on local property taxes with the result of pricing some taxpayers, particularly the elderly on fixed incomes, out of their homes. State-level funding that relies more on income and sales taxes allows for a greater distribution of cost-sharing across our state.
My research on equity and excellence in Maine’s schools clearly shows that, as in other states, student achievement and school ratings are highly correlated with family incomes and community resources. In Maine, our students would be second in the nation on student achievement test scores if all of our students achieved at the levels of our students who do not live in poverty. To improve our educational performance, then, we must improve the economic well-being of our youngest residents. But Maine won’t see the improvement in education it needs by saddling low-income, local taxpayers with an increasing portion of school costs.
Between 1993 and 2014 Maine shifted from a relatively fair school funding formula on a national report card put out by School Funding Fairness to a poorly funded school formula. The Legislature’s commitment to state funding of schools will help us return to a fairer school funding formula and help ensure the success of all of our students and our future workforce.
Flynn Ross is associate professor of teacher education and coordinator of the Extended Teacher Education Program at the University of Southern Maine. She is co-coordinator of the Maine chapter of the national 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.