State funding for education was at the heart of the state government shutdown in July. Quality public education for all students is essential for workforce development, the economy, and the future for Maine. State funding is the key to ensuring that all students across the state have equitable access to quality schools.
Investment in education is well documented to be a key factor in economic development. Quality pre-kindergarten programs have a 13 percent rate of return in increased lifetime earnings and decreased social welfare costs, including incarceration and health care. Yet in 2013, a bipartisan, independent analysis of Maine education funding, called the Picus report, determined that Maine is underfunding education by $260 million a year. The U.S. House proposes for the 2018 budget $2.4 billion in cuts from education with nearly $10 million from Maine.
Equity in school funding
Maine has historically committed to equitable funding of schools across the state. But inquities are growing, with some districts spending two and even three times per pupil as other districts. Per pupil spending varies widely from $8,494 in RSU 19 in Somerset County and just over $9,000 in Auburn and Sanford, to over $15,000 in York and Wells-Ogunquit and over $20,000 in MSAD 76 on Mount Desert Island.
In the United States, about 8 percent of education funding comes from the federal government and the remaining 92 percent is split between state and local funding as shown by OpenMaine.org. In Maine, voters approved a bill in 2004 requiring the state to cover 55 percent of state and local education funding to ensure that all children in the state have access to quality public schools, even in communities that are not able to raise sufficient local tax dollars to provide it as determined by the Essential Programs and Services formula. There are many factors that go into calculating the funding for each district. Wealthy communities are then able to raise additional funds beyond what is needed for Essential Programs and Services from local taxpayers if they approve it at the ballot box, which is part of how we get such wide differences in the per pupil funding.
How do we spend our taxpayer money on education?
It’s not on paying our teachers, who earn 61 percent of what similarly educated peers in other fields earn. In Maine, we pay our teachers much less than the average in the United States, ranking 32 nd in 2016. And our teachers work more hours directly with students than teachers in other countries — 41 percent more, according to calculations from Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. And now the Public Service Loan Forgiveness that was designed to help teachers pay for college through legislation in 2007 under President George W. Bush is under threat of repeal with the proposed 2018 budget.
Recently, administrative costs have been examined closely with our 242 school administrative districts for fewer than 200,000 students statewide. The range of administrative costs varies widely but most districts are less than the national average of $842 per pupil.
Our class sizes are relatively low in Maine, although this too varies widely and over $2 million in federal funds to support class size reduction is slated for cuts in the proposed 2018 budget. This commitment to personalized learning with high quality teachers in relatively small classrooms is essential for quality learning.
Maine has consistently been in the top 10 states for student achievement on the National Assessment of Educational Progress and Maine is 10th in the nation for high school graduation rate at 87.5 percent in 2014-2015. Maine students ranked 9 th in the world in science and 13th in math in 2013 when for the first time international tests were disaggregated by state.
On average, Maine students are doing very well academically, many are top in the nation and world. The challenges are that the students with the fewest economic advantages continue to struggle and the number of these students in Maine continues to grow with increases in rates of childhood poverty.
Education funding is not simple. But Maine’s voters have consistently supported investing in the future of all of our children as they are our state’s future.
Flynn Ross is associate professor of teacher education and coordinator of the Extended Teacher Education Program at the University of Southern Maine in Portland. 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.