Yes, I know, I know.
This past November, voters narrowly passed a referendum presented by liberal special interest groups that demanded a massive tax increase on “wealthy” Mainers to chase the long elusive goal of funding Maine’s public schools at 55 percent.
Besides the purported revenue windfall from this surtax not materializing, it is important to consider what public support of a 55 percent funding threshold actually means, and what it doesn’t.
Historically, state funding of local education looks like a public policy version of Charlie Brown trying to kick the football Lucy is always waiting to yank away at the last second. No legislature has ever hit the 55 percent.
Between hundreds of local school budgets being driven up faster than taxpayers can afford, and the definition of what the legislature is trying to fund being changed to make the target more expensive, lawmakers have been essentially trying to kick 200 footballs while an equal number of Lucys try to yank it away – to their own benefit.
The referendum to provide more funding to public schools was not a ringing endorsement of the status quo in Maine’s public education. If anything, it was a statement that Mainers generally feel like our public education system has potential to do better than the status quo, and they took action on the only option they were given.
It is folly to believe that Maine voters were giving a mandate to continue the status quo in public education at a dramatically higher cost, and it is equally absurd to look Maine taxpayers in the eye and tell them that they are getting the best possible value for their tax dollars when only 59 cents of every education dollar makes it into the classroom.
I submit that the referendum that passed was also not a mandate that state lawmakers never look for ways to find savings in public education. In fact, I believe that Maine voters absolutely understand, and support, efforts to find savings through regionalized services and other measures.
Maine’s public education system is currently built for the larger student population we once had. Our schools were built to support 40 percent more students than are in Maine today, and costs have not decreased while student enrollment has plummeted. Public education spending is increasing at rates far greater than the incomes of Maine people.
House Republican Leader Ken Fredette laid out some principles in a recent op-ed to the Portland Press Herald that clearly define some ways we can reform our education system, provide better value for Maine students and taxpayers, and get more dollars into the classroom.
This serious approach to reforming public education is part of the answer to improving results, saving taxpayer money and providing students with a better education.
We owe everyone a better answer to our challenges than the liberal approach of just throwing more money into a system that has struggled to provide value after spending increases. A referendum that was sold largely on the idea of improving schools and the funding of public education can be respected through reforms that do not increase taxes, but deliver a better education for students and greater value for taxpayers.
If we want better outcomes from our schools, we can’t just provide more money in the budget, we also have to change the system.
Fair-minded lawmakers understand this and are working on a reform package. Republicans are united around this approach as a key component of a budget deal. Here is to hoping that Democrats and “independent” lawmakers will see the wisdom in it as well.
In doing so, we take away the chance of those footballs getting yanked away from future lawmakers who are sincerely trying to do what is best for our public schools.