Maine has a problem with its schools, and it starts in Augusta.

For a decade, the state has failed to follow the law and fund 55 percent of education, shifting the burden onto school districts. In some districts, that means higher property taxes. In others, it means cuts to programs. In many, it has meant both.

As a result, a whole generation of students has moved through each grade in underfunded schools without the benefit of programs and approaches that educators know would help them thrive.

This problem comes from Augusta, and that is where it should be resolved. We support a “no” vote on Question 2, an act to raise more money for schools, and we call on the next Legislature to make fair school funding a top priority next year.

Our skepticism regarding Question 2 does not mean we doubt that schools need more money. The problem with the ballot measure is not what its supporters want to do, but how they want to do it.

At first glance, the issue looks simple. The voters are being asked to levy a 3 percent surtax on adjusted incomes higher than $200,000 a year, and distribute the funds to school districts to supplement current spending.


But nothing about tax policy or school funding is ever simple. Every action has an opposite reaction somewhere else in the system, and something so complex rarely can be resolved with a simple yes-or-no answer.

A bill like the one going before the voters Nov. 8 would be the right place to start the process, not the place to end it.

While there is no real dispute that most schools would benefit from more support from the state, there is a legitimate question about whether the current school funding formula is the best way to get the money to the places where it is most needed.

For instance, some school districts can raise enough money from local property taxes to fund more than just the state-required essential programs and services. If these more well-off districts received more state money, they could spend it on education instead of tax relief, adding to the disparity between them and property-poor districts.

And distributing money to districts by inverse order of local property values is not necessarily the best way to reach the students with the greatest needs. Targeting funds to fight inequity – jump-starting universal per-kindergarten programs, for instance – would be more effective than just putting more money into the existing system.

The wisdom of relying on such a large income tax surcharge is also debatable. It would give Maine the reputation of having the second-highest top tax rate in the country and do nothing to raise revenue from out-of-state visitors and seasonal residents. Raising revenue through comprehensive tax reform would be better than raising the top income tax rate.


The referendum process is just too blunt an instrument to repair something this complex. Nearly everyone agrees that the state needs to spend more to meet its legal obligation of covering 55 percent of education costs, but there are legitimate debates over what would be the best way to spend the money, as well as how to raise it and how it fits with other budget priorities. This is work that really should be done in the Legislature’s Education, Taxation and Appropriations committees, not through a referendum drafted by one side of the issue.

We share the frustration that supporters of Question 2 have with this issue. Maine was edging toward reaching the 55 percent threshold until 2008, when state revenues collapsed during the financial crisis. Since Gov. LePage came to office in 2011, the state has never come close, and the governor has made shifting costs onto municipalities and school districts his preferred method of paying for a massive tax cut.

But this is a problem that should be fixed in Augusta.

If Question 2 does not prevail next month, we would like to see lawmakers submit the text of the question as a bill and put it through the legislative process. We think the Legislature will be able to come up with a better package than the one Question 2 puts before voters this election.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.