When a major credit-rating agency rebukes a state, it’s usually for spending too much money. But Moody’s Investors Service recently knocked Maine for not spending enough to fulfill its mandate to fund 55 percent of local K-12 public education costs.

The warning from Moody’s highlights a bleak reality. The state has passed the buck on education spending to local taxpayers and forced schools to do more with less funding. Maine should get back on track toward meeting its obligation or face an even more arduous task: figuring out how to reverse the economic and academic damage that will be inevitable if the state stays on its current path.

Last week, Moody’s called the $6.7 billion state budget a “credit negative” for Maine cities and towns. In other words: The spending plan doesn’t adequately fund K-12 education, making municipalities more dependent on property taxes and potentially affecting how much they pay to borrow money.

Granted, Maine has never achieved the 55 percent public school funding mandate, in place since 2004. But the state was making headway until the Great Recession. Progress stalled and hasn’t regained momentum despite the recovery, thanks to a budgeting strategy that emphasized tax cuts benefiting wealthier Mainers over new sources of revenue.

In fact, between fiscal year 2008 (before the recession) and fiscal year 2015, Maine slashed state aid to public schools by 13.3 percent – a deeper cut than 38 other states, according to a 2014 report by the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

To avoid program and staff reductions, many Maine communities have opted to raise property taxes, a 2013 Maine Policy Review paper found, thus placing more pressure on local taxpayers. But the additional revenue isn’t enough to offset state spending cuts: Maine’s teacher salaries, for example, are 17 percent below the national average, making it harder to attract and keep qualified educators.

And of course, less-affluent towns and cities can’t afford to make up for the state’s failure to meet its obligation, creating a two-tiered K-12 public education system.

The result? Too many students in Maine don’t get the kind of schooling they need to prepare them for higher education, professional training and a productive place in the community and the workforce.

There was reason for optimism in January, when the Legislature and Gov. LePage seemed ready to discuss meaningful tax reform. LePage’s unwillingness to compromise has stymied those efforts for now, but we hope the dialogue can resume. When it comes to preparing tomorrow’s leaders, too much is at stake not to give change a chance.

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