Commentary: ‘Yes’ on Question 2 would help education, now that Legislature has failed mandate

Lawmakers haven’t spent what voters demanded for school support, and now is the time to insist on more.

NEWPORT — Passing Question 2 will help solve Maine’s education funding crisis, one perpetuated by those we’ve already asked to fix it.

In 2004, Maine voters overwhelmingly mandated that the state fund 55 percent of the cost of education. Subsequent Legislatures and governors have yet to comply with this law, funding progressively less every year. In 2015-16, the state paid only 47.5 percent.

We feel this failure as local property taxes continue to rise even as we are forced to make deeper cuts to our schools.

Voters in my school district, Regional School Unit 19, are among those who’ve seen the worst of this trend despite having the most power to reverse it. We’re represented by two of the most powerful men in Maine, House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, and Assistant Senate Majority Leader Andre Cushing.

Those titles carry an incredible amount of influence, which both have used to advance their priorities. But their legislative records and budgets passed on their watch indicate that those priorities have not involved ensuring the level of state education funding voters demanded.

Citizens in towns comprising RSU 19 should be outraged by this, especially considering our recurring budget crisis and the fact that the state’s contribution to RSU 19 schools has decreased by over $2 million in five years. Voters should contacttheir elected representatives to ask why they have continually failed, especially as they’ve run on a platform of keeping taxes low.

But voters need to know what answer is acceptable before asking, because Fredette and Cushing have specious arguments ready.

Indeed, a recent joint campaign mailer proclaims they “voted to allocate an additional $15 million for school funding … . We will also launch a blue ribbon commission to reform public education … .”

That sounds impressive.

But the $15 million was allocated only after schools found themselves facing another shortfall because of more projected state funding cuts. It was also long after school districts had further slashed education because of the proposed cuts, weakening our communities and state. This would be like your boss withholding your paycheck and then deciding to give you 5 percent of it after one of your children starved to death.

The 2012 Legislative Council spent $450,000 to hire Picus and Associates to analyze Maine’s education funding. Even by the most basic standards, Picus estimated, the state is underfunding education by $260 million annually. Now they want to create a blue ribbon commission to study the same thing? This would be like my 5-year-old commissioning a study to determine why there’s crayon on the wall.

Let’s assume I, as a farmer, tell my employees to harvest 55 percent of the tomatoes before a frost; I’ll take care of the rest myself. They harvest 47.5 percent and call it good. After I complain, they pick 5 percent of the remaining tomatoes, come back expecting praise and suggest spending money to study why my business is suffering.

Our elected officials explain that it’s complicated. There are lots of programs to fund.

Maybe my farmhands noticed the grass needed mowing, a fence needed repair and the tractor had a flat tire. They picked 47.5 percent of the tomatoes, mowed 25 percent of the grass, repaired the fence and patched the tire.

By some standards, that’s pretty good. But I, as the employer, specifically directed them to focus their energy on the tomatoes. If all the tomatoes get picked, then and only then can we focus on other problems. School funding is like that.

There are actually very few spending policies Maine voters have directly mandated. But those we have, by definition, are our highest, collective priorities. In other words, they are not on the same level as other policies. Nor should they be treated as such. If you don’t understand the distinction between levels of obligation, try paying only 47.5 percent of your mortgage this month. After all, you likely have a long list of other priorities.

Mainers value education because we understand that the future of our communities depends upon our children’s ability to become diverse, productive, happy adults, ready to face a rapidly changing world. We sent this message to our elected officials and created a law to dictate our priorities to them. We have a procedure to deal with those who haven’t done what we’ve asked.

Meanwhile, please vote “yes” on Question 2 – Stand Up for Students (something elected officials should have been doing since at least 2004). Passing Question 2 provides $157 million for K-12 education and requires the money directly benefit classroom instruction and student learning.

Link to Portland Press Herald article

Maine Center For Economic Policy Finds Tax Cuts For Wealthy Have Hurt Maine Communities & Public Schools

New report says Question 2 will promote greater opportunity for low-income students and will grow Maine’s economy

 AUGUSTA, ME | SEPTEMBER 19, 2016 – The Maine Center for Economic Policy (MECEP) today released a report, Moving Maine Students to the Head of the Class—the results of several months of study—which offers a detailed analysis why Question 2, the Stand Up for Students campaign for tax fairness and equal educational opportunity, will benefit Maine students and communities.

The report finds, “Tens of millions of dollars in recent tax breaks drive the reduction in the share of state education funding. Not only do these cuts predominately benefit wealthy Mainers, they compromise state capacity to invest in education. Since 2011, wealthy families in Maine have benefited from two decreases in their top income tax rate that gave them tax breaks much larger than the income tax breaks for low- and moderate-income Mainers. During the same period state sales tax increases, which disproportionately impact low- and moderate-income Mainers, offset some but not all of the revenue loss.”

“The MECEP study is an exhaustive piece of research that underscores the need for the State of Maine to meet its funding obligation,” said John Kosinski, campaign manager for Yes On 2. “Opponents are quick to offer slogans and catch phrases against this effort, but they offer no solution. Yes On 2 is a solution, and the MECEP research bears that out.”



Maine schools need more resources that translate into greater achievement

Printed in the Bangor Daily News – August 31, 2016

By Flynn Ross, Special to the BDN

Maine people value education. In 2003, more than 72 percent of voters said yes to the state funding 55 percent of the cost of public education.

But since 2008, the state share has declined to 46.6 percent. This matters because state funding of schools is a more equitable way to finance education than through widely varying property taxes in each community. State funding has the potential to improve education for Maine as a whole, and it keeps us out of legal battles about inequitable school funding that have plagued many other states. Alternatively, reducing state funding for schools puts an undue burden on local communities that have to raise local taxes or cut services in order to make up the difference for what the state is obligated to contribute.

Clearly, some communities are better able than others to absorb these cuts by raising local property taxes. That’s why state funding cuts can significantly increase differences in per-pupil school spending, further reinforcing the reality that where children grow up — their ZIP code — has a greater influence on the quality of their education and their future than other factors. Per-pupil spendingin some parts of Maine — such as on Mount Desert Island ($21,985 in MSAD 76) and Isleboro ($25,375) — is nearly three times greater than elsewhere in the state ($8,802 in Machias and $8,782 in Orrington).

Investments in education targeted to reach students from families in poverty can increase lifetime earnings by 25 percent and decrease poverty in adulthood by 20 percent, according to research published by the National Bureau of Economic Research. This, then, should be a primary focus for the newly formedCommission to Reform Public Education Funding and Improve Student Performance in Maine.

This commission, which is focused on Maine’s school funding formula, has the potential for huge impacts on local communities. The first public meeting was held Monday at York County Community College in Wells. The public needs to keep an eye on the data and hold our public policymakers accountable.

There were more than 30 members of the public present Monday with three television news channels and 12 of the 15 commission members present at this first meeting held in public session. The commission meeting materials postedfor the April 25 meeting that was not open to the public report that school funding in Maine has increased 26 percent in the last 10 years, but that’s because those figures don’t take inflation into account. When adjusted for inflation, funding has actually decreased by more than $1.9 million, or 0.7 percent.

Another group called Educate Maine, a statewide, business-led coalition, has committed to increasing educational outcomes for all Maine children irrespective of ZIP code. Educate Maine plans to soon release a second policy brief. The group is advocating for seven strategies to improve career and college readiness for Maine students. Each strategy has several related policy proposals designed to create a comprehensive approach to improving education in Maine with a focus on narrowing the achievement gap between students living in poverty and their more economically advantaged peers. The proposals in this document will be research-based. For example, the document cites research from University of Maine economist Philip Trostel that demonstrates that a $26,200, per-student investment in preschool education can result in $140,000 in taxpayer lifetime benefits, for a 434 percent rate of return. That’s a good investment!

The Educate Maine policy recommendations illustrate a comprehensive approach to ensuring success for our future generations from prenatal care to family and caretaker support, health care, quality early childhood and K-12 schooling, along with high-quality summer programs. These targeted investments would cost $4,230 more per child in poverty as calculated by a task force at Teachers College at Columbia University.

One opportunity for increasing resources for our schools is a ballot initiative this fall, Question 2, which calls for households earning over $200,000 per year to pay $30 of every $1,000 earned above $200,000. It is calculated that this would generate an additional $157 million annually. This initiative could help address some of the need for resources in our schools.

There is great consensus from public officials, researchers and citizens that investment in our public education system is important. The challenges are to utilize these resources most effectively and equitably to ensure that the state as a whole is able to move forward in its educational attainment.

Flynn Ross, Ed.D. is associate professor of teacher education and coordinator of the Extended Teacher Education Program at the University of Southern Maine. She is co-leader of the Maine chapter of the Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear in the BDN every other week.