Second in a five-part series

Maine ranks among the top 10 states in the percent of earnings that are spent on public education, a statistic that may help to explain why the three candidates for governor devote so much attention and energy to the issue.

Republican Gov. Paul LePage, Democratic U.S. Rep Mike Michaud and independent Eliot Cutler hold sharply contrasting views on questions such as charter schools, education funding, college costs and student proficiency testing. The winner of the Nov. 4 election, working with a newly elected Legislature, will have the opportunity to shape spending and set policy direction for an issue that touches most Maine households.

The U.S. Census Bureau reports that nearly 5 percent, or $46.48, of every $1,000 each Mainer earns helps pay for public education. Over the years, Maine towns have devoted more of their budgets to the public schools, and the local share of education spending has increased by 37 percent between fiscal year 2007 and fiscal year 2015, from $783 million to $1.07 billion.

This year, the state posted its fifth consecutive gain in high school graduation rates. However, a third of graduates who go on to college in Maine require remedial courses in math and reading, according to the state Department of Education.

Last year, seven in 10 seniors who graduated from college had an average student loan debt of $29,400. Maine students’ debt has increased an average of 6 percent each year since 2008, according to The Project on Student Debt.

Here is where the candidates stand on education issues:

SPENDING

The state’s share remains at issue, putting pressure on local budgets

Education spending is a responsibility shared among the state, federal and local governments. A referendum passed in 2004 required the state to pay 55 percent of local education costs, but policymakers in Augusta have never met that obligation. That has increased pressure on local budgets, causing unrest in communities that are forced to consider cutting education funding and associated programs, or raise property taxes.

CUTLER has proposed two initiatives that he said would increase the state’s share of education funding by $75 million while also providing tax relief to communities. Both plans are funded by his property tax relief initiative, which includes an assortment of tax changes, including eliminating sales tax exemptions for some businesses, increasing the meals and lodging tax and increasing the sales tax. Similar tax initiatives have been attempted in the Legislature. Although one became law, it was repealed by voters in 2010 and similar efforts have since been rejected amid pressure by interest groups. Cutler said his plan will succeed because he’ll take the lead.

LEPAGE said the problem with the 55 percent mandate is that there’s no control over local spending. “If the state met the 55 percent goal in the next budget, school districts could increase their budgets and raise the overall spending so that we would fall short again,” he said. The governor did not address a question about what he believed was a reasonable spending target for the state, but he suggested that state funding was adequate because enrollment among students in grades K-12 has dipped 12 percent over the past 10 years.

MICHAUD said voters have been clear that they want the state to fund 55 percent of education costs and have been unwilling to adopt “complicated schemes,” such as the so-called Taxpayer Bill of Rights, which are designed to cap towns’ ability to raise revenue. He did not say how he planned to meet the 55 percent threshold, but said the state needed to fund existing priorities while not shifting the burden to towns. Michaud said he’d “bring everyone to the table” to find a funding solution.

ADMINISTRATION COSTS

Savings from consolidations rarely go to classroom, taxpayers

A school district consolidation law, signed by Gov. John Baldacci in 2007, was designed to reduce administration costs, but the results have been mixed. A recent Press Herald report found that the law had generated savings in school administration in the districts that consolidated, but the savings were rarely passed on to taxpayers and that some consolidated districts are now attempting to break apart.

LEPAGE said the consolidation law was well-intended but poorly executed. “I believe our teachers are underpaid, but under local control, the state cannot force schools to spend the extra money we send them on increasing teacher salaries or any other specific budget item,” he said. “We can continue to send them millions more each year, but still have no guarantee they will spend it on teachers rather than administrative costs.”

MICHAUD noted that in 2012 school districts on average spent about 60 percent on instruction. He acknowledged that administrative costs were high in some districts. “To reduce administrative costs the state needs to partner with local school districts to eliminate unnecessary bureaucratic burdens, redundant paperwork and other requirements that don’t have a direct – and positive – impact on student learning,” he said. “But we can’t accomplish that through increased mandates or threats. We have to work cooperatively to reduce administrative costs and move more dollars toward the classroom.”

CUTLER said consolidation made sense in some districts but “forcing it won’t make it happen. … Maine taxpayers know that their local governments can provide services more efficiently by collaborating with each other, but they don’t want the state telling them where and how to do it,” he said, adding that his property tax relief plan provides incentives for consolidation without mandating it.

CHARTER AND VIRTUAL SCHOOLS

Their alternative role, funding, financial beneficiaries at issue

At issue is whether charter schools and virtual charter schools are viable alternatives to students for whom public school isn’t a good fit, or for students seeking education with a curriculum tailored to their skills or needs. Virtual schools, and their financial beneficiaries, have come under the most scrutiny. Taken together, opponents believe charter schools produce uneven educational outcomes while diverting crucial dollars from traditional public schools.

LEPAGE has been an avid supporter of charter schools and would like to expand their number beyond the current 10 in 10 years limit. “Virtual charter schools are not going to turn the state’s educational system on its head, but for the few hundred kids who need this kind of option because of physical or intellectual issues, for example, they are a life-changing opportunity that we should not deprive them of,” he said. As for siphoning money from public school districts, LePage acknowledged it’s a problem and noted that he had twice tried to change the funding law so that charters receive a straight allocation from the state, but the Maine Education Association blocked the funding changes.

MICHAUD said he remains “skeptical of charter schools,” citing how the institutions are funded and whether there’s proper oversight over curriculum. “Instead of charter schools, we need to support public education and make sure that every child, regardless of where they live, has access to a quality education,” he said. “We should also support and encourage innovation within our existing public schools.” Michaud said he supports a moratorium of virtual charter schools but would allow existing schools to stay open to avoid a sudden policy change.

CUTLER said he supports charter schools capped at the current number of 10. He said the institutions can be alternatives for students and families who want a smaller school or for students who want a specialized area of study. As for the polarization of charter schools, Cutler said he would change the funding formula so that charter schools are funded by all districts, not just the ones sending the students. A similar proposal failed during the last legislative session because the proposal contained a moratorium on virtual charter schools. LePage vetoed the proposal. Cutler said he would consider a moratorium on virtual charter schools.

STUDENT LOAN DEBT

Average student loan debt in Maine is $29,400 and rising

CUTLER has a plan based on a model implemented in Australia and now underway in Oregon. It provides free tuition for students attending state colleges, but asks students to commit to repaying the debt by devoting a certain percentage of their future wages. The Legislature passed a bill this year to study the initiative. Cutler has acknowledged that the state would likely have to make a significant upfront investment to fund it. “There is no question that (pay it forward) would involve substantial state borrowing to establish the fund at its inception, and that the repayment obligations would need to be sufficient to both amortize the debt and over time constitute the fund as a revolving, self-perpetuating vehicle,” he said.

LEPAGE said he is interested in the pay-it-forward, pay-it-back plan proposed by Cutler – but he hasn’t fully endorsed it. The governor also said he’s looking forward to see the results of the Legislature’s study of the initiative.

MICHAUD has a different approach. He supports the state completely paying for Maine college students’ sophomore year. The cost of the plan is estimated at $15 million per year, but his campaign insists that investment will help with college debt while also keeping students in school. Michaud wasn’t specific about how he’d pay for the plan. “But if we want to solve big problems – and student debt and Maine’s lack of college graduates are big problems – we have to be willing to consider real investments,” he said. “I also believe that this new investment in the university system can help increase enrollment and bring more students into our schools, which helps the overall bottom line across the system.”

• STUDENT ACHIEVEMENT

High school graduation rate and college readiness could improve

Of Maine’s 133 high schools, 73 improved their four-year graduation rate from 2012 to 2013 and 60 did not, according to the Maine Department of Education. The state still ranks in the top 15 nationally, but the candidates said there’s room for improvement.

LEPAGE said 55 percent of students who enter community colleges need remedial work in math and/or English, a “completely unacceptable” figure. “We need to focus on graduating young people with the critical thinking skills they will need to compete throughout their careers and help Maine attract more businesses by creating a workforce that fills their needs,” he said, adding that his proficiency-based diploma and teacher evaluation will “hold schools accountable for teaching students the basic skills they need prior to awarding them a diploma.”

MICHAUD said the “answer to improving graduation rates starts long before students ever get to high school.” He said the state should focus on childhood education and pre-kindergarten so that kids enter public school well equipped. A deeper issue, he said, is poverty. “Too many don’t have enough to eat, or a safe, warm home. If we want to improve graduation rates, we also have to improve our performance in those areas,” he said, citing his plan to raise the minimum wage, making the Earned Income Tax Credit refundable, and provide paid sick time for parents.

CUTLER also cited poverty as a reason that some high schools did worse than others. His education plan will identify high-poverty school districts and make them eligible for up to $30 million each year in assistance. He also proposed $26 million each year in early childhood learning. Both initiatives would be funded through revenues from his tax reform proposal.

Steve Mistler can be contacted at 791-6345 or at:

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