December 11, 2013

Maine education committee hopes to introduce school funding reform bill

Several lawmakers say they will push for a bill in the January session incorporating recommendations from a study on how the state funds public schools.

By Noel K. Gallagher
Staff Writer

AUGUSTA — Despite a short time line and a potentially big price tag, several lawmakers on the Legislature’s Education and Cultural Affairs Committee said they plan to introduce an education reform measure in the upcoming session that will incorporate recommendations from a $450,000 outside analysis of how the state funds local schools.

“We have before us this report that is research-based and evidence-based on a national scale and offers us some ways of improving where we’re at in education,” said Rep. Bruce MacDonald, D-Boothbay, House chairman of the committee. “I realize the price tag is pretty rich, ... but I’d like to see us take a big swipe at some of the recommendations.”

The report from California-based Picus & Associates, 18 months in the making, offers a range of proposals, including reducing class size, expanding early education and increasing staff development days. Altogether the changes could increase annual state education spending by as much as $230 million a year.

Various lawmakers indicated support for several of the suggestions in the report, but did not expressly endorse any in particular on Tuesday, when the authors presented their final report to the committee. The committee meets again in January, and all members were asked to itemize their priorities at that time.

The Picus report was commissioned by the Legislature last year as part of a $450,000 review of the state’s Essential Programs and Services funding formula, which has been criticized by some as inequitable.

The report found the current formula was essentially effective, but recommended changes to provide an educational experience that goes beyond just “essential” services.

It also suggested changes to the current funding model to address perceived inequities in communities with high property values but low-income residents.

Cost was mentioned repeatedly as a potential barrier, but the report’s lead author, Lawrence Picus, said the research found that Maine needed to spend more money on education.

“(The current funding formula) is a strong model based on the needs of Maine,” Picus said. “But there are several features that we think are important to schools, and that research supports at this time ... and (the formula) doesn’t fund those and you need more to fund those.”

“To some extent, additional resources over time are needed for schools to meet the Common Core (educational) standards and to be successful,” he said.

Finding the money will be difficult, said Superintendent Gary Smith of RSU18 in Oakland, who was part of a panel asked to review the report. He noted the state still falls short of meeting the 55 percent school funding amount specified in Maine’s education subsidy laws.

“We have lived through, since 2007, some unbelievably hard financial times,” Smith told the committee. “I’m wondering where you are going to fund the current levels of (education funding) in the current environment, and if you could fund up to 55 percent I would applaud your efforts.”

The report included an alternative funding mechanism, but several committee members said they were leaning toward adjusting the existing formula rather than replacing it, which could trigger a long, drawn-out process. It took about seven years to draw up the initial funding formula, a legislative analyst told the committee.

Republican Rep. Peter Johnson, R-Greenville, noted that some aspects of the current formula were outdated, but changing them would be difficult.

“The problem is that we have an index computed in the past and we don’t know how to change that. Well, we do have a way. It’s called political courage,” he said.

Sen. Rebecca Millett, D-South Portland, who co-chairs the committee, said it would hash out a vision for the bill in early January. She acknowledged it could be tough to get a bill together in the biennium’s short second session, which is designed to take up emergency measures.

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