Cost-shifting threatens local education

Here is an alarm: For the first time in the state’s calculation, Maine faces the prospect of insufficiently funding even the threshold costs of providing a basic education to all Maine students.

Since 2009, our state has reduced its annual contribution towards funding Maine schools by more than $60 million.  As a direct consequence, over this same period, local school districts have reduced expenditures by more than $20 million while local property taxpayers have had to raise an additional $40 million to cover the state’s shortfall.

No wonder local communities are frustrated and angry,  They are paying more than ever and their schools are still being forced to cut school programs.

Amplifying this pain, on top of a projected $6.5M increase in the ordinary costs of schools’ essential programs and services, Governor LePage proposes to shift $29 million in teacher retirement liability to local schools while allocating $14 million on ten new and expanded state initiatives, including expanding funding for homeschoolers to take college classes, extending funding for private business partnerships with schools, and a controversial new state Office of School Accountability with discretionary funding presumably informed by the Governor’s equally controversial new school grading system.

While some of these initiatives and administrative expansions may offer benefits, this spending does nothing to relieve the increasing structural gap between state aid to schools and local schools’ threshold mission to provide essential educational programs and services.

Despite the state-side savings from the retirement shift, the Governor’s budget proposal continues to underfund local school districts.  In fact it depends on local taxpayers absorbing an additional $22 million just to maintain the level of current school services.

Local taxpayers shouldn’t be asked to pay even more just to maintain essential funding for classrooms and required school programs. This additional $22 million liability conveyed by the governor’s budget is almost certain to break some of our local schools. With taxpayers already tapped out, many school districts’ only recourse will be to cut essential programs.

In this crisis, our state faces these questions:

Are we committed to providing a threshold level of opportunity for Maine students to meet our basic learning goals? If not, what learning expectations are we prepared to jettison?

If we are committed to this basic funding commitment, are we willing to increasingly shift tens of millions of dollars of state obligation to local schools each year? Or is it time for the state to begin honestly to meet its own responsibilities?

For years, Maine has taken pride in having its schools ranked among the nation’s best by most test measures. Understandably, the governor recently has expressed concern that our test scores, while highly commendable by absolute standards, remain flat while those in other states are rising. But is it realistic to expect even modest improvement to follow from the current trend of substantially decreasing school programs?

It’s lazy to the point of meaninglessness to declare, as the Governor has recently done, that half of Maine’s schools are subpar.  The hard question is what are we as a state willing to commit to the effort of school improvement?

Legislators and the governor regularly testify that they understand that the future prosperity of our state depends on the adequate education of Maine students.  It’s time to test that commitment by stemming further erosion of the state’s share of school funding and renewing our effort toward better educational practices.

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