Maine’s school districts this week will learn how much state aid they can expect as they plan their budgets for the 2018-19 school year.
It’s the second year in which the state is rolling out changes to state education funding that could make planning more unpredictable for school officials, but will, on balance, lead to more funding directed to those students who will benefit from it most.
One of those changes is making it easier for school districts to offer public preschool for 4-year-olds. As a result, more Maine children will have the chance to participate in early education programs that offer them a head start on their education, a greater likelihood of short- and long-term academic success, a lower likelihood of requiring costly special education services, a greater long-term likelihood of becoming gainfully employed, and a reduced long-term likelihood of engaging in crime and requiring costly incarceration.
Maine’s school funding policies have long encouraged school districts to offer public preschool. The students enrolled have counted as other students do for purposes of calculating state aid. The struggle was in finding the money to start the pre-K programs, since state aid for the young students didn’t kick in until a year after the programs began.
A policy change included in the state budget that passed last July will allow school districts to start collecting state aid for public preschool programs the same year they start.
Already, the promise of state funding for a proven education policy is encouraging more school districts to offer public preschool and helping others expand their offerings. As the BDN recently reported, 13 school districts have told the state they plan to start offering public preschool in the fall for the first time, and 29 additional school districts say they plan to expand their preschool offerings this fall.
This school year will mark the second for another policy change aimed at helping the state’s poorest students: An adjustment lawmakers made to Maine’s school funding system is directing more resources to districts with high proportions of low-income students that the districts will have to spend on “extended learning programs,” such as after-school and summer programs and tutoring, that specifically benefit low-income students. That adjustment translated into $28 million for the current school year out of more than $2 billion in total school spending.
Another policy change that took effect last year ended a state practice of withholding some state money from districts that received additional federal aid because of their large populations of low-income students. Now, those districts that receive Title I funds — which are earmarked for poor districts — can receive them without having to worry about a corresponding loss in state aid. That’s $40 million that can remain where it should.
Maine should be spending more of its state education funding specifically for the benefit of low-income students. More and more research in recent years has shown that additional spending on poor students makes a difference for them that it doesn’t for wealthier students — both in the short and long terms. It all suggests the state should be tipping the balance even more in favor of its low-income students, and we’re pleased to see some of that happening.
The state aid estimates school districts receive this week will reflect a number of other changes as well. The state is setting aside less money for school district administration — part of an effort by Gov. Paul LePage’s administration, also included in the state budget, to get school districts to provide more services regionally. It’s also changing the way it pays for career and technical education, with the state assuming more of those costs.
The changes might all lead to some surprises as school districts plan their budgets for the fall, but a number of them will mean that state education money is going where it will prove most helpful.
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