Maine’s school funding formula is designed to distribute state money equitably, and for the most part, it does just that.

But when it doesn’t, school districts don’t get the funding they need, and students suffer.

One way the formula doesn’t always work is with districts that receive only the minimum amount of state funding – basically, some money for special education and nothing more.

FORMULA FALTERS

The funding formula is endlessly complicated. But in short, it uses property valuation to determine how much a community is able to pay for education through local property taxes.

Most of the time, the calculation works. The property wealth of, say, Cape Elizabeth or York matches well with residents’ ability to pay for the operation of local schools. So when the state sends York only 7 percent of what it takes to fund essential programs and services, the town is able to afford the rest.

The opposite is true, too, in places like Lewiston, a poorer community where the state picks up more than 70 percent of school spending.

But the formula falters when it places communities like Cape Elizabeth, with a median income of around $105,000, alongside communities like Greenville, where the average income is much less.

Communities like Greenville, where the state pays 6 percent of school funding, and Jonesport, which gets about 11 percent, appear wealthy because they have a lot of high-priced waterfront property. But that wealth is not widespread, and does not reflect the average resident’s ability to pay ever-increasing property taxes.

School officials and lawmakers recognize the essential unfairness of this quirk in the formula and have tried to remedy it. But attempts to find the right mix of alterations has been elusive. Plus, with a set amount of school funding in the state budget every year, any attempt to send more funding to some schools inevitably hurts others, making changes difficult.

SIMPLE SOLUTION

A new group, however, has a fairly simple solution.

Mark Robinson, town manager of Fayette, is organizing minimum receivers around the Raise the Floor initiative. The group is working on legislation that would set the minimum amount of state funding at 15 percent of the cost of essential programs and services.

Robinson says the effort would take $15 million in new funding, to be kept separate from the traditional allocation so that nothing is taken away from other schools.

Robinson is right that the funding formula is generally unfair to minimum receivers, and not only those that are less than wealthy. The difference between some minimum-receiving communities and others that get 30 or 40 percent of their school budgets covered by the state is negligible, meaning the students and taxpayers in the former are getting a raw deal.

And school districts have little ability to control most of their costs, meaning every increase in health insurance or student tuition has to be borne wholly by the regressive property tax.

The effort faces a number of hurdles. The same study that found the funding formula to be mostly fair also argued that the state should increase funding, and though the Legislature did exactly that in the next budget, you won’t find school districts saying they have enough.

And while the group wants its relatively modest $15 million request kept separate from other school funding, that’s not how the Legislature will see it. It’s all one pot of money to them, and next year Raise the Floor will be competing not only for limited school funds but also with initiatives such as Medicaid expansion.

But the group should be heard, if only to take another look at the inequities in an otherwise good funding formula.

Opportunities should meet Maine students regardless of where they go to school, and Raise the Floor is drawing attention to one area where that’s not always true.

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