While some lawmakers are calling for more money for public schools and others are seeking new ways to distribute the funds, the most radical education reform proposals legislators will tackle this session would expand the meaning of the state constitution’s education clause.
Next week, the Education Committee will hold a public hearing on two bills that would add the idea of equity to the list of things state officials have to keep in mind in carrying out their constitutional mandate to oversee the state’s public school system. The constitution’s education clause, which is considered weak by many observers, now makes no mention of the idea that students should have the same opportunity to get a good education no matter where they live.
Because different communities have differing abilities to pay for their schools, many lawmakers and educators say Maine’s funding mechanism, which relies heavily on property values, unfairly discriminates againt property-poor communities.
Towns and school districts have sued the state on these grounds, but their cases have been thrown out of court because the state constitution provides no guarantees of state support for education.
In neighboring states with stronger state constitutions, however, such legal challenges have been successful.
Last month, the New Hampshire Supreme Court ruled that state’s heavy reliance on property taxes to support education was unconstitutional because it leaves poor towns without the ability to raise as much money as their wealthier neighbors. New Hampshire does not have a state income tax or sales tax.
The court gave the governor and Legislature one year to fix the system. Some New Hampshire lawmakers have suggested amending their state constitution to remove the state’s responsibility for supporting education.
The supreme court in Vermont issued a similar ruling in February.
Two Maine lawmakers from economically similar rural areas hope to improve the situation here by changing the state constitution. If one of the constitutional amendments is approved by two-thirds of both the House and Senate, it will be put before the voters in the fall.
“This legislation is an effort to highlight an insidious situation in which we’re starving many of our small rural schools to death,” Sen. Judy Paradis said of her bill, LD 1861. The Democrat from Frenchville said schools in her northern Maine district are being forced to go without basic supplies, including toilet paper. She also knows of many parents who have hired tutors to teach their children subjects the public schools cannot afford to offer.
“It’s very inappropriate for lawmakers to abdicate our responsibility of providing an adequate education to all of our 200,000 students in Maine,” said Paradis, a former teacher.
The constitution now says simply: “A general diffusion of the advantages of education being essential to the preservation of the rights and liberties of the people; to promote this important object, the Legislature are authorized, and it shall be their duty to require, the several towns to make suitable provision, at their own expense, for the support and maintenance of public schools.”
Paradis’ amendment would add one sentence: “The Legislature shall ensure that funding is available to provide equal educational opportunities to students at public schools throughout the state.”
The other amendment was proposed by Sen. Susan Longley, D-Liberty, last year. She said she was prompted to propose a constitutional change, in part, because of a Bangor Daily News article that showed the gap in school spending between the state’s poorest and richest school districts had nearly tripled in six years. Her bill, LD 1601, was held over from last year’s session.
“The state should honor its commitment to educate students fairly and equitably no matter where they were born,” said Longley, a lawyer who lives in western Waldo County. She added the education clause is the only portion of the state constitution that has not been amended or updated.
Longley and others are still completing the wording of her proposal, but a December draft reworked the entire existing clause. The draft reads: “A general diffusion of the advantages of education in the several towns being a fundamental right of the people and essential to the preservation of their rights and liberties, and in order to promote this important object, the Legislature is authorized and it shall be its duty to guarantee that the state and local support and maintenance of public schools be equitable and adequate.”
The amendments have a lot of supporters. Longley said the Maine Chamber and Business Alliance, the Maine Municipal Association, statewide education groups and legislative leaders have expressed their support of her bill.
“It clearly is the case that the constitution should be amended in this area,” said Jeff Herman, director of state and federal relations for the Maine Municipal Association. He said the current situation, which puts the burden for funding schools on local communities while state money is seen as a “gift,” must be changed. The group has not taken a position on the bills but will do so at its meeting in January, Herman said.
The Maine Education Association has called for a change in the state constitution for years. The teachers union supports “either one or both” of the proposed amendments, said Keith Harvie, the association’s spokesman.
Bangor Superintendent Jim Doughty said one or a combination of the amendments “stand a pretty good chance” of passing. “It is time for a serious discussion in this state of the purpose of the state in determining the educational opportunity of youngsters,” he said.
One reason educators feel betrayed by the state is that Augusta chips in less than 50 percent of the money needed to run the state’s public schools, even though current law calls for 55 percent. By recalculating costs and exempting some expenses from its reimbursement schedule, the state contributes only about 44 percent.
Another bill that will be heard by the Education Committee on Thursday would require the state to fulfill its funding commitment. LD 1769, sponsored by Rep. Mabel Desmond, D-Mapleton, would require the state share of subsidizable education costs to be at least 50 percent annually.
In 1991, citing a statewide recession, the state began decreasing its contribution to the school funding formula. Desmond’s bill exhorts the state to repay the money withheld from school districts on a five-year repayment plan.
The bill also would require the commissioner of education to pay 100 percent of all costs school districts incur to implement the Learning Results, statewide education standards passed by lawmakers last year.
LD 1769 would also repeal a provision in the funding formula for geographically isolated schools and for services provided to students at private schools. It would also place a one-year moratorium on new school construction and provide a financial incentive to encourage school consolidation.
With an ever-growing state budget surplus, the calls for more money for schools have grown louder of late.
“I don’t remember a time recently when we’ve had more resources available to fund education,” said Doughty.
Doughty was among a group of educators, businesspeople and government officials who studied the school funding formula this fall. The panel, which was created by the State Board of Education, recommended a few minor changes in the formula and called for further study.