Mainers surveyed in a poll last week said they are concerned with the quality of public education, many believing it has declined since they were students.

A majority also said they support directing tax dollars to the state’s public colleges and universities, and almost half said K-12 schools are not getting enough money from the state, according to The Maine Poll.

On a scale of 1 to 5, where 1 was “not at all concerned” and 5 was “very concerned,” about education in Maine, 70 percent ranked their concern level at either 4 or 5. The Maine Poll was conducted Monday for MaineToday Media by the Portland research firm Critical Insights.

Seventy percent favor “directing Maine tax dollars” to the Maine Community College System, and 69 percent favored doing the same for the University of Maine System.

“The public clearly understands that a strong higher education system is essential to the future of Maine at both the community colleges and universities, almost at an equal level,” said Richard Pattenaude, chancellor of the UM System. “I share that view; they’re both economic drivers.”

Forty-eight percent of those polled said they believed the state directs “too little” tax revenue to the public K-12 system. Twenty-seven percent said “just the right amount” was directed to the system, 14 percent said it was too much and 11 percent didn’t know.

“It was very positive and a reassurance that voters in Maine understand the importance of a strong public education system,” said Mark Gray, executive director of the Maine Education Association teachers union.

Education funding makes up roughly half of the current two-year, $5.5 billion state budget. General purpose aid and other Department of Education programs make up 41.46 percent of the budget, or $2.28 billion. Higher ed gets 9.55 percent.

The Maine Community College System has a $55 million budget, with 36 percent from the state and the balance from tuition, fees and fundraising.

The UM System’s operating budget is $528 million — 49 percent from tuition and fees, 35 percent from the state’s general fund and the balance from fundraising, sales of services, and grants and contracts.

Pattenaude said the system gets about $12 million less in state funding than it did in 2008.

The university system has tried to keep tuition increases down — this year’s 4.8 percent tuition increase was the lowest in six years, he said.

Both Pattenaude and John Fitzsimmons, president of the Maine Community College System, said the poll results indicate that Mainers recognize the direct connection between an educated work force and economic development.

“The time to prepare for the returning economy is now. If we’re going to wait for it to recover and are in catch-up mode, we will again be slowed in our own recovery,” said Fitzsimmons.

The education-related questions were part of a broader poll that looked at the gubernatorial and congressional races as well. Pattenaude said he’s spoken with all the gubernatorial candidates, and that each “to the best of their ability,” will support higher education.

“Whoever wins this fall is stepping into a very challenging budget, but having someone who understands the value of higher education, even in a bad budget, sometimes protecting higher education from significant cuts, is the best of a bad situation,” said Fitzsimmons. “Having a governor that believes in higher education as part of the recovery — that really bodes well for us to come out of the bad time and be ready for the future.”

The support for public education, contrasted with the perception that the system needs to improve across the board, reflects how important voters feel the topic is for economic development, said Stephen Bowen, director of the Center for Education Excellence at the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a conservative think tank.

“I think Maine people feel as though if we could get this right — a world-class university system, top-quality K-12 schools — we could pull ourselves out of this morass,” said Bowen.

Bowen keyed on the question that revealed that 40 percent of those polled believe the quality of public education is worse than it was when they were in school. Twenty-six percent believe it’s better, 25 percent think it’s about the same and 9 percent didn’t know.

“People feel that we’ve been pouring money into these things, expanded special ed, done testing, why aren’t we getting the kind of results we should be getting?” said Bowen. “People’s patience with the pace of school reform is running thin.”

That 70 percent of those surveyed were generally “more concerned” about education in Maine demonstrated a few things, said the MEA’s Gray.

“One, they understand how important education is. Two, voters are coming to understand even more the connection between education and the economic future of the state, and on a personal level, the economic future of their kids,” said Gray. “This high level of concern is an indication people are worried about their economic future.”

The pollsters also asked respondents which gubernatorial candidate “would be most committed to education.” Democrat Elizabeth “Libby” Mitchell led the pack with 38 percent. Republican Paul LePage was at 17 percent. Unenrolled candidates Eliot Cutler and Shawn Moody were at 7 and 6 percent, respectively. Thirty-three percent said they didn’t know.

The 405 registered voters, all of whom said they are likely to vote in November, were surveyed Monday. The poll has a margin of error of 4.9 percentage points with a 95 percent confidence level. That means that if the poll were repeated 100 times, in 95 cases the results would be within 4.9 percentage points of those reported.

Of those polled, 53 percent were female and 47 percent were male. Forty-two percent were age 18 to 44, 41 percent were 45 to 64 and 17 percent were 65 or older.

Seventy-seven percent of those surveyed were married, and 35 percent of them had children 18 or younger living at home with them.

Thirty-seven percent of those polled were Democrats, 36 percent were Republicans and 23 percent were unenrolled.

According to the Maine Secretary of State’s Office, there are 977,025 registered voters in Maine. Democrats comprise 33 percent of those voters; Republicans make up 28 percent. Unenrolled voters are the largest group, at about 36 percent. 

Staff Writer Matt Wickenheiser can be contacted at 791-6316 or at:

[email protected]

 


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