We are less than 10 days away from the long July Fourth weekend. Schools are out, families are predicted to head to Maine in record numbers, and the state is facing a potential shutdown over the budget and funding for public schools.
This biennial budget should be called the “education budget,” as the passage of Question 2 last November has dictated most of the conversation over the past few months. The voters last November expressed their support for increased education funding and for the state to meet its obligation to pay 55 percent of the cost of education — a funding level the voters set in 2004. As a dues-paying member of the Maine Education Association and the Senate chair of the Education Committee, I have consistently supported increased funding for our schools.
As a former teacher, a restaurant owner and a legislator who has the privilege of chairing the Education and Cultural Affairs Committee, I can tell you a shutdown makes no sense for Maine’s tourism industry, taxpayers or school children — and it doesn’t have to happen.
Maine has the money to pay for the budget that is supported by legislators on both sides of the aisle, including Senate Republicans. It would raise no new taxes and provide substantial tax relief to property owners who would see their required contribution to schools at the local level drop. It also meets the 55 percent threshold for funding K-12 education for the first time, ever.
The Maine Constitution states that education is “essential to the preservation of the rights and liberties of the people” and that it is the duty of the Legislature to ensure that high-quality public education is available, efficient and effective for every student. This year, we have the opportunity to re-focus our efforts on making a meaningful investment in our classrooms.
Students and teachers are at the center of our education system. Too often they are left voiceless in Augusta, but we should celebrate and support them. Yet, more and more money is caught up in the operating overhead and infrastructure of our public schools even as our student population steadily decreases. We operate on a system designed to serve 250,000 students, but today’s enrollment is below 180,000 students and is projected to continue declining.
To better support our students, we must adapt our school system to become more efficient so our resources are directed where they are most effective — inside the classroom.
We recognize that the perfect time to make education reforms is when funding increases, which is why significant reforms are included in our budget proposal, and many of these reforms are mutually agreed on by both sides of the aisle.
These reforms will support public education and, in particular, help level the playing field for our most economically disadvantaged students throughout the state. They support earlier access to Career and Technical Education and would make early college more accessible with reduced tuition rates for students while they are in high school.
Our budget respects school boards and administrators, putting them in charge of defining and pursuing regional sharing agreements to save money and improve programs at the same time.
It puts students and student learning first, above all other interests, and puts more money directly into the classroom.
But if we don’t pass a budget by the June 30 deadline, some very bad things will happen in the state.
State parks — a major draw for tourists — could close because they are not deemed essential. Imagine the impact that would have on the areas home to Baxter State Park, Aroostook State Park, Round Pond, Mount Blue State Park, Popham Beach State Park and Scarborough State Park. From Quoddy Head in Lubec to Grafton Notch State Park in Oxford County, the entire state would be affected.
State offices would be closed, and Maine people could not get the help they need from state workers.
In my coastal district, I worry what that would mean to the men and women who work in the shellfish industry whose clam flats are regulated by the Maine Department of Marine Resources. Every business has some connection to the state.
As more people throw around the word “shutdown,” keep in mind that this does not have to happen. There is a reasonable deal on the table to increase state aid to school districts, implement significant education reforms and reduce local property taxes — all within existing resources.
In negotiating terms, this is called a “win-win.”
Brian Langley is the Senate chair of the Education and Cultural Affairs Committee. He represents District 7 in the Maine Senate.