- The Maine Wire - https://www.themainewire.com -

Why should Mainers pay more for closed government schools?

Governor Janet Mills unveiled a new supplemental budget last week that would grow state spending in Maine to record levels, made possible by the Revenue Forecasting Committee’s newest report which upgrades the state’s General Fund Revenue forecast by about $940 million through the next biennium. Lawmakers approved an $8.3 billion biennial budget earlier this session along a party lines vote.

Coined the “change package”, the governor’s newest plan would throw millions more at the Department of Education to meet the state’s obligation to fund 55% of the cost of essential programs and services in K-12 education, increase municipal revenue sharing and add $52 million to the Budget Stabilization Fund (also known as the “Rainy Day” Fund). If approved, Governor Mills’ supplemental budget proposal would bring state spending to $8.77 billion over the next two years.

Some of the top line spending proposals include $151 million to reform MaineCare, including increasing provider payment rates and expanding access to dental care, $22 million in tax relief by increasing maximum benefits under the Property Tax Fairness credit, $38 million for tax conformity and expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit, $80 million to increase revenue sharing to 4.5% in FY 2022 and 5% in FY 2023, $87 million to repair State-owned buildings, $18 million transfer from the General Fund to the Highway Fund, and more.

Mills also dedicates $187 million to public education in the plan. Notably, the release doesn’t mention how this funding is to be used or what Mainers can expect to receive from this record investment in public schools. Rather, the release and subsequent communications from the Mills administration plainly focus on the public virtue of meeting the arbitrary 55% funding requirement.

In 2004, Maine voters approved a ballot question that requires the state to pay 55% of the cost of public education. The state has regularly failed to meet the mark since the initiative passed, though there’s been many disagreements between gubernatorial administrations and legislative leadership about what costs should or should not be included in the equation, and whether or not the state has previously met the 55% benchmark.

Meanwhile, dozens of school districts in Maine are still operating in a hybrid learning model with no guarantee their schools will be open 5 days per week by the end of the current academic year, let alone this fall at the start of the next schoolyear.

As noted by the Bangor Daily News in December 2020, Maine lost a record number of students in the public education system last year. Maine’s public schools enrolled about 8,000 fewer students at the start of the current academic year than it did the year prior, a figure five times larger than the size of the next largest enrollment drop which occurred during the 2011-12 and 2012-13 academic years, according to the BDN.

A Maine Policy Institute analysis from March found there are 34,500 fewer public school students in Maine than in 2001, a 16.7% drop, yet inflation-adjusted per-pupil spending is 70% higher over that period. This figure will undoubtedly swell as the state spends more money next year on fewer students.

What are we getting, exactly, from all this spending? How does it become more and more expensive to educate fewer and fewer students each year? There’s such a disconnect in Maine as it relates to educational achievement and state spending on public education, and the proof is in the data.

Maine parents don’t care if the state meets its arbitrary 55% funding requirement for public schools. Rather, they want their children to receive the education they’re already paying for, which can’t be accomplished until every Maine public school student is back in school, 5 days per week. Until then, it’s not worth spending another penny on public education in Maine.