April 06, 2020

Equity in education

Two constitutional amendments to equitably support school districts across Maine seem simple enough, but the issue is far more treacherous than it appears. Supporters of these amendments should take care: They may get what they ask for.

The amendments, to be heard tomorrow before the Legislature’s Education and Cultural Affairs Committee, stress equity: one calls for funding to provide for “equal educational opportunities” statewide; the other wants “state and local support and maintenance of public schools to be equitable and adequate.” Out of fairness for students’ futures and for the long-term benefit of Maine, these ideas are apparently sensible. But what exactly is equity?

Does it mean that every district gets the same amount of money per student? Could a district raise more money if its residents wanted to? Should capital and transportation costs be counted separately to recognize rural costs? How about regional variations in the cost of living? Or do the amendments demand not similar funding levels but similar student outcomes — as measured by test scores — and, if so, does that mean the state would be required to dump more money on towns with poor outcomes without having control over how that money is spent?

Nobody knows for certain. Other states, without using the exact wording of Maine’s proposed amendments, have included similar phrases in their constitutions. The word “thorough” is particularly popular in describing the kind of education states are required to provide. Colorado calls for its school-funding system to be “thorough and uniform;” Maryland, Pennsylvania and New Jersey require it to be “thorough and efficient;” Indiana, “general and uniform.” These clauses, however, have not necessarily given poor districts what they wanted.

Lawsuits over equitable funding in more than 40 states have produced a mixed record of accomplishment. New Jersey has worked for 30 years (unsuccessfully, according to the courts) to meet the standards set in its constitution. New Hampshire recently discovered that its heavy reliance on property tax to fund public education did not meet its constitution’s test for equity. Educators bringing suit against Kentucky’s school-funding formula were surprised a few years ago when the state’s supreme court not only found the formula inadequate, but further ruled the entire school system was unconstitutional, giving the state one year to devise a new one.

The lack of a requirement for equity in Maine’s constitution has disappointed poor school districts that have sought relief from the growing funding disparity between them and wealthier districts. But equity might not be what they would receive even if they were successful. Walter McIntyre, director at UMaine’s Center for Research and Evaluation within the College of Education, points out that recent court decisions have stressed the idea of adequacy of funding over equity. Adequacy is preferred, he said, because of the judge’s understanding that there always will be schools that can give students more.

But adequacy carries its own problems, as Maine’s task force for essential services has discovered as it has tried to sort out what is essential, or adequate, and what is merely a pleasant addition. Core courses — English, math, history — are easy enough to agree on, but how about art or music or sports?

Beyond equity

Even without a constitutional amendment, Maine has created several commissions in recent years to make its school-funding formula more equitable. Their conclusions rarely have proved satisfactory for anyone. The latest commission, expected to report to the Legislature this month, will recommend a good idea that is recommended and ignored almost annually in the Legislature: that state government fund a larger share of school costs using the current formula. The state now funds about 44 percent; current law actually calls for 55 percent. Though expensive, this proposal at least provides a reliable result — more money for almost all districts.

A constitutional amendment guaranteeing equity, on the other hand, may have the desirable effect of raising the state contribution or it may result in an interminable number of court cases that produce little. Further, if the Legislature decides to spread all funding equally among districts, an amendment could bring back the dreaded uniform state property tax and, with it, greater state say in local education issues.

What supporters of the Maine education amendments want is an opportunity for all students to succeed. What these amendments provide is something far different, with potentially more harmful conseqences for schools statewide.

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