A bill that would change how the state distributes federal anti-poverty education funds to local schools is a top priority for Democrats going into Wednesday’s meeting of the Legislative Council in Augusta.

Only about 30 bills out of 400 proposed are expected to be approved Wednesday by the 10-member council for consideration by the Legislature early next year. Democrats hold six of the 10 seats, so it’s likely a bill with top leadership support will go forward.

Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland, said he considers the anti-poverty funding bill crucial considering how widespread poverty is in Maine. According to Census figures, one in five Mainers under the age of 18 lives in poverty.

“It’s critical to get those students more resources so they can be successful,” Alfond said.

Maine schools get $40 million a year in the federal anti-poverty funds, earmarked for particular schools based on U.S. Census data indicating poverty levels. The funds, Alfond said, should be given to districts in addition to their regular state funding.

The state currently subtracts that money, known as Title I funds, from a school district’s overall state funding. Acting Education Commissioner Jim Rier said Tuesday that the Title I funds are removed because Title I teachers are included in the state’s calculation. If the state were simply to give districts the Title I funds on top of the state formula, he said, the state would be paying for those teachers twice.

The Title I funding bill, sponsored by Sen. Geoff Gratwick, D-Bangor, is one of dozens of education-related bills proposed for the next session. Another priority for Democrats are several bills dealing with college affordability, including one that would ask the state Department of Education to research Oregon’s “Pay It Forward, Pay It Back” model, by which students attend state colleges for free and then pay their “tuition” by giving the state 3 percent of their salaries annually for 24 years.

Republican leadership staff members said they were keeping their legislative priorities confidential in advance of Wednesday’s meeting.

Title I funding is one of the nation’s oldest and largest federal programs supporting elementary and secondary education. More than 90 percent of U.S. school systems receive Title I funding; in Maine 65 percent of schools get the funding, which is calculated based on Census poverty figures.

Numerous education research studies have found that children with poor nutrition, and those who live in disordered households and substandard housing, don’t do as well in school. Free and reduced meal programs, additional teaching resources and other anti-poverty efforts make a big difference, experts say.

Generally, schools use the money for instructional programs for low-income students, including hiring teachers, coaches or paraprofessionals to work with those students.

If more than 40 percent of a school’s population is low-income, the school can use the funds for programs that benefit all students.

“The original intent of Title I is that it is meant to supplement the education of kids that are living in poverty who need extra support,” said Lois Kilby-Chesley, a former Title I teacher who is now president of the Maine Education Association. “Now for every dollar you get in Title I, the state takes it away. It was never meant to supplant (state funding).”

“What we would like is to make sure the money that’s directed at the schools isn’t somehow offset,” Kilby-Chesley said.

Noel K. Gallagher can be reached at (207) 791-6387 or at:

ngallagher@pressherald.com