Beefing up early education, helping economically disadvantaged students and making sure teachers are paid a fair wage emerged Wednesday as some of the top priorities for the Legislature’s Education Committee.

“Even if we can’t do everything right now, we can make some progress and leave work for the next Legislature,” Senate Committee Chairwoman Rebecca Millett, D-Cumberland, said after polling each member on their priorities.

The committee met Wednesday for a work session to discuss a $450,000 independent review of the state’s school funding formula by California-based Picus & Associates. The review recommends that Maine make several changes, including reducing class size, expanding early education and increasing staff development days. The changes could increase annual state education spending by as much as $275 million a year.

At the heart of the discussion is whether the state should stick to the current Essential Programs and Services funding formula or adopt the Picus “evidence-based” model, known as EB.

Maine is one of more than 40 states that use property valuation to assess school funding. Districts with higher property values often receive less state aid, which critics say doesn’t reflect low-income residents’ ability to pay property taxes if a town raises taxes to pay for schools.

The Picus report found the current formula was effective, but recommended changes such as providing direct property-tax relief to low- or fixed-income residents, and funding additional educational programs that go beyond just “essential” services.

Committee members said Wednesday that it would be more effective to adopt some of the policy recommendations by making changes to the existing formula, rather than to adopt an entirely new model. It took two years to develop the current funding model.

Acting Education Commissioner Jim Rier said the report provides a good starting point to discuss policy and funding issues, but he did not endorse adopting it completely.

“At this stage, deciding to move in a $300 million (increase) direction … I’d be quite nervous about doing that,” he said. “I would rather use what you are learning from the EB model to consider making changes to (Essential Programs and Services).”

Rier noted that without finding additional state funding, the extra $275 million would have to come from local communities. Plus, several of the recommendations in the report earmark funds for specific uses, such as teacher development or early childhood.

The current model doesn’t dictate how schools spend state funds.

“I just can’t emphasize enough, from our perspective, the enormous work you have going forward,” Rier told the committee.

In discussion later, several lawmakers agreed they should first come up with the changes they want, then figure out how to pay for it.

“Let’s pass the policy first, way before you get into the spreadsheet politics,” said Sen. Brian Langley, R-Hancock.

But everyone on the committee agreed they did not want to wait for the next session to start tackling the results of the Picus report.

Several praised it for making specific and comprehensive recommendations based on scientific analysis and on successful models in other states.

The strongest consensus was for beefing up early childhood education, which the report estimated would cost $10 million.

About 60 percent of Maine school districts now offer some form of pre-kindergarten, many of them part-time programs. State officials said 4,765 children are in pre-kindergarten programs.

Almost 14,000 are enrolled in kindergarten.

Most committee members said additional programs for economically disadvantaged students were also a priority, which the report said would cost an additional $124 million a year. Most of the board also supported more professional development programs, which the report pegged at $97 million a year.

“It’s time to do something,” said Rep. Michael McClellan, R-Raymond, even if it comes with a price tag when money is scarce. “We need to be realistic … if we come up with a plan, then we need to be prepared to stand up and scream and yell and fight for it.”

Staff Writer Noel K. Gallagher can be reached at 791-6387 or at:

ngallagher@pressherald.com