Education in Maine has two problems – a people problem and a money problem. To my mind, the more critical of the two is the first. Why? Because if we don’t find a way to incorporate drastic improvements to our education system into a solution to our people problem, there will never be enough money to solve our stand-alone education problems. They are just too intricately entwined with our more fundamental people problem.

When I speak of the people problem, I am not thinking about declining school enrollments. I am thinking about declining numbers of births and declining numbers of women of child-bearing age, and thus about tomorrow’s enrollment rates. According to the most recent population estimates released by the U.S. Census Bureau, the number of deaths in Maine over the 2015-16 estimation period exceeded the number of births by 1,300. Even more significantly, this negative natural increase held true for 14 of Maine’s 16 counties. Only Androscoggin and Cumberland counties saw the number of births exceed the number of deaths, and there only by a mere 386.

Recognizing that birth rates often vary widely from year to year, it is helpful (although not very encouraging) to consider the longer 2010-2016 period. In this instance, the same general pattern holds true. The number of deaths in Maine exceeded the number of births by nearly 3,600, and the negative natural increase held true for all but three counties – Androscoggin, Cumberland and York. More startling, however, is the fact that the number of births in the 2015-16 period (12,542) was 5 percent lower than the annual average for the whole six-year period (13,264) and that this drop held true for 15 of Maine’s 16 counties. Only in Sagadahoc County did the number of births in 2015-16 equal its six-year average.

In a word, without in-migration of young families, the number of students entering Maine’s elementary schools is going to continue to decline, and as these ever-smaller cohorts of children work their ways through the K-12 system, the per-student fiscal burden of maintaining even the same level and quality (however defined) of education will inexorably rise.

Fortunately, some level of migration (both domestic and international) has tempered this natural demographic decline.

Statewide, for the 2010-2016 period, our net international immigration of just over 9,700 people more than offset the net domestic loss of nearly 2,000 people, leaving Maine with an overall positive net migration of approximately 7,700. All 16 Maine counties saw an increase in net international migration, but over half came to Cumberland County.

Domestically, only six counties saw a net increase over the period, and 71 percent of this total came to Cumberland County, clearly reflecting a strong concentration of the movement of people both from other parts of the U.S. and from other parts of Maine to the Portland area.

In short, Maine education’s people problem is threefold: too few births; too little immigration, and a high level of concentration of the migration we have experienced in the Portland area.

What then of Maine education’s money problem? Setting aside, at least for the moment, the question of how any additional money should be spent, the central answer for me is: “Do no harm!”

Current arguments about 55 percent and 3 percent (the long honored, if only in theory, goal of taking 55 percent of total pre-K-12 education funding from state tax sources, and the now hotly debated tactic of dedicating to education the proceeds of a 3 percent surcharge on the portion of any household income exceeding $200,000 per year) are both unnecessarily divisive and self-defeating.

Taking 55 percent of an ever-diminishing fiscal pie is nothing more than chasing our tail. If we don’t increase the size of the pie, we won’t solve any of our public problems. Raising the marginal tax rate on those who might consider migrating to Maine is biting the tails of those who might help solve our problem.

The first answer to Maine education’s money problem is to identify which revenue source is:

n Least likely to increase the burden on those most likely to suffer the consequences of continuing the current demographic and fiscal trends, i.e., local property taxpayers.

n Least likely to discourage those most likely to come here with young children needing the services of a high-quality local education system, i.e., talented workers being recruited by employers in Maine and simultaneously by equivalent employers all across the country.

To my mind, the answer is obvious: Broaden the base of the sales tax to include services and dedicate some portion to a set of specific tasks designed to make Maine’s education system a completely integral part of the state’s long-term strategy for social and economic revival.

Charles Lawton, Ph.D., is a consulting economist. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]