February 20, 2013

Maine Voices: State shirks its share of responsibility for funding K-12 education

Spending cuts drive up class sizes, make it harder to recruit good teachers and shift costs to towns.

By Mark Sullivan, who is communications director at the Maine Center for Economic Policy

AUGUSTA — It's easy for politicians to say they are committed to educating kids. However, when it comes to paying for our children's education, in Maine the rhetoric doesn't match the reality.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Mark Sullivan is communications director at the Maine Center for Economic Policy, a liberal think tank based in Augusta.

Historically, Maine has lagged behind the rest of New England in per-pupil education spending. Recent census data puts annual Maine per-pupil spending at $12,259. That's the lowest in New England, $124 less than New Hampshire and $3,000 less than Vermont.

Since the start of the recession in 2008, Maine has cut annual per-student funding for K-12 education by a whopping $468, and the governor's proposed two-year budget would cut per pupil funding by an additional $66. These cuts threaten our children's future and prospects for a thriving, prosperous Maine economy in the 21st century.

Even while struggling to overcome challenging revenue shortfalls since the start of the recession, other New England states have managed to maintain and even increase their support for K-12 education.

Over the same period Maine has been cutting funding, Massachusetts increased per-pupil spending by $282, New Hampshire by $223, Connecticut by $210 and Rhode Island by $137. Aside from Maine, only Vermont reduced funding but the per-pupil cut was only $70.

One clear result of these funding cuts is fewer teachers in Maine classrooms. Since the 2006-2007 school year, Maine schools have cut some 1,400 teachers – a decrease of about 9 percent. And that has resulted in an increase in the student-teacher ratio.

Studies show that smaller class sizes promote student achievement – particularly in the early grades and for low-income students. Smaller classes also increase the likelihood that students will attend college. But Maine's recent education funding cuts make it much harder for schools to maintain the staffing levels needed to keep class sizes small.

Recruiting and retaining the very best teachers is the single most effective means to encourage student achievement. Maine teacher salaries are already 15 percent below the national average, and the lowest of any state in New England. These state education funding cuts make it even more difficult for Maine schools to offer competitive wages needed to attract and hold on to the best teachers.

Another consequence of reduced state school funding is a shift of a greater share of the cost of educating our kids to local governments, which must choose between cutting school funding and other services like police, fire and road maintenance or raising local property taxes.

In 2004, Maine voters approved a referendum question requiring the state to cover 55 percent of the cost for K-12 education. The state has never fulfilled that mandate and is, in fact, falling further behind.

As citizens prepare for town meetings and the adoption of local budgets this spring, they understand that the governor's proposal to transfer more of the cost for teacher pensions to local schools will further increase the funding burden on local taxpayers.

Major tax cuts that the state enacted last year threaten to dig Maine's education funding hole even deeper. They are a big part of why the state faces an $881 million revenue shortfall in the two-year budget that begins on July 1 of this year.

Rather than revisiting these tax cuts to help close this gap, the governor has recommended additional cuts to education, health care, property tax relief for low-income Mainers and other programs important to working families on top of deep cuts already made. This is a giant step backward.

We can't cut our way to prosperity; we need to make investments that we know will yield better jobs and higher wages.

There is no better investment we can make than in a good education for our kids. No amount of education reform will compensate for the fact that we aren't adequately funding our schools or paying our teachers. Cutting state education funding is exactly the opposite of what we should do.

When it comes to public education funding, it's time for our political leaders to match their actions to their rhetoric. Maine needs to strengthen our state education funding commitment to give our children a brighter future, to prepare the highly skilled workers our businesses need to compete in the global economy, and to raise living standards and grow the middle class.

 

- Special to the Press Herald

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