Providing an adequate education for the young is one of a successful society’s most important accomplishments. Without an educated and skilled workforce, capable of adapting to change, a community will find it difficult to provide employment opportunities for its citizens or satisfy the needs of area businesses. For Maine cities and towns, the cost for providing adequate education is proving both difficult and contentious.
Education funding in Maine has been under pressure for several decades as our state has shifted from reliance on traditional manufacturing industries. Textiles, shoemaking and paper mills, around which so many towns and cities were built, are all but gone. Reliance for local economies has now shifted to retailing, health care, services and seasonal jobs dependent on tourism. And the local tax burden, previously dependent on the mills, and their payrolls and purchases, has shifted to residents and landowners.
Exacerbating the dilemma, Maine’s school enrollments have declined 12 percent over the past 10 years, yet school spending has increased by 27 percent. Per-pupil education costs have risen over 30 percent, but test scores are stagnant or down since 2000, with Maine trailing other New England states both in reading and math proficiency scores.
Maine trails every other New England state in per capita personal income — by a wide margin. The latest data from 2015 shows the average Mainer’s personal income at barely over $42,000 per year—$5,800 a year behind the next lowest state, Vermont, and a whopping $13,700 behind neighboring New Hampshire.
Further darkening the picture, Mainers derive a larger proportion of their income from government transfer payments such as Social Security, unemployment and welfare.
Providing additional money for education does not automatically guarantee better schools or better results. Supporters for increasing state educational funding lament the state’s inability to provide 55 percent of total education funding as approved by voter initiative in 2004. But neither that initiative nor the 2016 initiative adding a 3 percent tax to high-income Mainers clearly defines where the extra money should be spent. Should local school expenditures be permitted to increase or should that extra money be used to lower local real estate taxes?
During the ebbs and flows of the education funding crises, several testing regimens have been added to the system, one after the other. Expensive and time-consuming reporting compliance has diverted sources from the classroom. Layers of non-teaching positions have become a necessary part of education funding, absorbing funds needed for children-facing positions. Myriad regulations are stymying productivity. It is apparent from the ample data that these added processes have impeded, rather than improved, education results.
Are we asking the right questions? Why are these regulations, testing and oversight compliance needed? Faced with shrinking tax resources,…