March 11, 2013

Off Campus: Equity ensures excellence of schools in Maine, nationwide

Discrepancies in school funding, access to early childhood programs and teacher pay hurt students.


GORHAM — Most of the world's religions recognize that we are collectively only as well off as those who are least among us. A report issued in February by the Equity and Excellence Commission, "For Each and Every Child," continues to confirm that this is certainly true when it comes to funding our nation's schools.

The commission was created by Congress in 2008 to look into the disparity in educational opportunity through legislation sponsored by U.S. Rep. Michael Honda, D-Calif. ("Rich-poor school spending divide hurts children, federal report finds," Portland Press Herald, Feb. 20).

The report points out that inequities in school funding, teacher preparation and compensation, and access to early childhood education lead to the educational achievement gaps and to the low performance of the United States as a whole in international educational comparisons. Here in Maine, we clearly mirror the same issues, with recent legislative and budgeting proposals taking us in the wrong direction.

The inequity of school funding is revealed in the per-pupil spending in Maine schools, which ranged from $30,786.26 to $5,753.80, a nearly 6-to-1 ratio as of June 2011. Some of these discrepancies have to do with transportation and facility costs in our rural state. However, many of the discrepancies have to do with a heavy reliance on local school funding formulas so that those who can afford to can invest in their children's education.

In 2005, L.D. 1 was a statewide attempt to reduce the inequities of local spending by increasing the state share of education funding to 55 percent by fiscal year 2009. However, a graph by J.E. Rier of the Maine Department of Education illustrates that the state share of essential programs and services has steadily decreased since fiscal year 2008 to 43.21 percent in fiscal year 2013.

Yes, state budgets are tight in this recession, but we are one of the wealthiest nations on earth. I argue that it is a matter of our collective will and priorities as to where we invest.

Our state, like others, is choosing to invest in our prison system rather than our educational system Growth in correctional spending as a percentage of state general funds has increased about 40 percent in the last 10 years nationwide.

Gov. LePage has proposed a $100 million bond to fund a single new prison in Windham as compared with his proposed flat funding of general purpose aid to K-12 education at $895 million annually statewide. The cradle-to-prison pipeline of underfunding schools to feed our insatiable appetite for the incarceration of our "free" citizens is well documented by the Children's Defense Fund, an advocacy and research group.

The Equity and Excellence report states, "Education is the key to a strong democracy, economic competitiveness and a world-class standard of living. In recent decades, however, America has lost its place as a global leader in educational attainment in ways that will lead to a decline in living standards for millions of our children and the loss of trillions of dollars of economic growth."

Investment in early childhood education and a high-quality teaching force are two of the primary strategies for correcting our decline. Teachers are the single most important school-level factor in addressing student achievement, yet the state of Maine has slipped to 33rd in the nation for teacher salaries. Teacher salaries represent just 28.2 percent of the total education expenditure.

Attracting, preparing and retaining our best and brightest students to teaching as a profession is a policy decision many of the high-achieving nations have made in recent years.

High-quality teachers have proven over and over again that they can improve educational achievement for all of their students, thereby closing the achievement gaps of inequity and raising education and subsequently living standards for everyone.

High-quality early childhood education is one of the best investments our state can make with a documented return rate of 7 to 10 percent per year. Where else can we get that return rate? Certainly not in prisons.

Further, targeting the needs of students in high-poverty communities is essential to ensuring equity and thereby excellence for all students in our public schools.

We have local control to some extent through our school budgeting process. I recommend a playful website that can help our voters and school boards better understand the consequences of our state and local budget decisions:

There are decisions we can make at our state and local level that will either exacerbate the inequities or move to remedy them, thereby creating a stronger educational system for all of our students.

Dr. Flynn Ross is an associate professor of teacher education at the University of Southern Maine's Gorham campus.

– Special to the Press Herald


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