July 23, 2019
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It’s time to get real about the unsustainable cost of Maine’s public education system

Gabor Degre | BDN file
Gabor Degre | BDN file
Central Community Elementary School in Corinth.

Last November was my first time running for office. It was clear to me that voters were sharply divided on many fronts, including the many referendum questions on the ballot.

I have seen that division continue in Augusta, as we have struggled to find common ground on important issues facing our state. I believe that’s a direct result of the mixed and divided results at the ballot box.

That’s why I have a problem with pointing to November’s election as a clear, unequivocal mandate on issues like Question 2. The election did not provide a clarion call on complex policy or the future of the state’s finances. It sent a message that Maine people reject the status quo in Augusta.

Passing a statewide budget is not as simple as saying “do what the voters told you in November.” Voters did not instruct us to write a blank check that puts the future of Maine’s finances in jeopardy.

When I have asked people in my district what supporting a 55 percent target for state spending on education would mean, I hear two primary answers. They want property tax relief and higher quality education in our schools. If there were evidence that simply providing more money to our education system would do this, I would enthusiastically support it. But I have seen no evidence that increased state spending reduces property taxes. It is irresponsible to mislead Maine voters and taxpayers otherwise. Simply sending more money through the state’s education formula without reform will perpetuate runaway spending. A 28 percent increase in state funding for education from 2005 to 2015 led to a 27 percent increase in local spending despite an 11 percent decline in student enrollment.

What will we get in return for increased spending? Student performance in Maine has been flat for the last decade, and education lobbyists in Augusta will not commit to providing better results for more money. We cannot afford the status quo.

As the youngest member of the Legislature (32 years younger than the average member of the Maine House of Representatives), I have even more reason to care about Maine’s long-term future. Student enrollment is projected to plummet, as it has over the last couple decades. For ten thousand fewer students than six years ago, we are spending over $100 million more per year in state funding for education. This is driven by a 20 percent increase in special education costs, 17 percent increase in student and staff support, and 14 percent increase in administration spending.

This means funding 55 percent becomes more and more expensive every year. Even if the state is able to meet that target next year, we are creating a greater structural gap for future years when spending will outpace anticipated revenues. This is not Washington, D.C., where prevailing attitudes have allowed the national debt to grow to $20 trillion and create a massive burden for my generation. This is Maine, where we must not act irresponsibly and pass the financial burden on to my generation and future generations.

That’s why any budget must include meaningful changes to create a more efficient and effective education system that puts more money into the classroom, reduces redundant operations, and increases access to opportunities for students.

Aroostook County is already leading the way. Recently, three groups of County school districts were awarded more than $1 million to fund efforts ranging from shared bus facilities to combining central offices. Together, these efforts are projected to save $2.4 million over the next five years. Our budget must encourage and support efforts like this throughout the state, and help create a system appropriate for our present needs.

An increasingly expensive system for fewer and fewer students is not sustainable, and we must make meaningful change. We must confront rising costs for special education. We must insist that more than 59 cents on the dollar spent on education in Maine makes its way to the classroom.

More taxpayer money to fund the status quo in Maine education will put our state’s finances at risk. I will stand with my Republican House colleagues and demand a budget that puts Maine on a sustainable path forward. Maine’s future depends on it.

Rep. Trey Stewart is a Republican serving his first term in the Maine House representing Presque Isle. He serves on the Education and Cultural Affairs Committee.

 



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