WASHINGTON — Maine continues to rank among the top states in teaching its elementary and high school students, but lags behind in equitably distributing funds between rich and poor school districts, according to a comprehensive new report.
Overall, Maine was among the top dozen states for imposing academic standards on students, quality of teaching and learning environment and level of school funding, according to the report compiled by Education Week, a respected Washington-based weekly magazine covering K-12 schooling.
While applauding the Legislature for passing “clearly defined academic standards” for students to meet, the report added: “But lawmakers did not address the financial disparities among districts — a situation that could handicap standards-based reform.”
Maine’s poor marks in distributing funds equally could add fuel to the fire of legislators and activists who are pushing constitutional amendments to guarantee “equitable” state and local support for schools.
The Legislature’s Education Committee officially kicks off the debate over school funding Thursday, when it will review the two amendments. If one of them gets approved by two-thirds of each house, it will be sent to the voters in the fall.
In one portion of the Education Week report, which will be released officially Thursday, Maine had the 25th-widest variation in spending per student out of 42 states that participated in that portion of the report.
That leaves Maine in the bottom half of the nation in terms of equitable spending for students.
For example, the report noted, Maine’s school districts spent an average of $5,955 per student in 1996 — an increase of more than 20 percent over the past 10 years. But for families living in a school district ranking among the top 5 percent in education spending, their schools would spend $3,371 more per student than a school district in the bottom 5 percent.
House Speaker Elizabeth Mitchell said the disparity has been caused by flat funding from the state for education this decade. Wealthy districts that could afford to increase taxes did so and also increased education spending, while poor districts left taxes in place and education spending stagnated, she said.
As Maine’s economy picks up steam, Mitchell said she expects the Legislature to increase its share of education spending, as it did in 1997 with a 2 percent funding increase for the 1997-98 school year and a 3 percent increase for the 1998-99 school year. “That in and of itself will go a long way toward eliminating inequities,” she said.
But Craig Jerald, Education Week’s project director, said money alone does not solve all the problems in education.
Imposing standards on the students was a good first step for Maine, Jerald said. But the state must now raise its standards for teachers — for which Maine ranks in the bottom 10 percent — while getting parents more involved in the classrooms.
“Rather than taking a silver-bullet approach, states should take a comprehensive approach to improving their standards,” he said.
Those criticisms aside, the report generally lauded the state for producing quality students in a good learning environment. On national science exams, 41 percent of Maine’s eighth-graders scored “proficient,” the highest mark, which gave the state the largest proficient percentage in the nation. Among fourth-graders, Maine was third in the nation, with 27 percent scoring “proficient” on national mathematics tests.
Connecticut, Minnesota, North Dakota and Wisconsin were other states with top performances in those subject areas.
Maine’s classroom sizes were also the smallest in the nation: 96 percent of fourth-grade classrooms had 25 or fewer pupils, and 88 percent of eighth-grade math classes had 25 or fewer pupils.
“But even in a state that ranks as one of the best in the country,” the report said, “many believe that good is not good enough: About one-fourth of Maine’s students performed below the `basic’ level on the math test.”
Education Week did not give overall rankings for states. Instead, it listed Maine as one of the top 12 states, a group that included Vermont, Rhode Island, Connecticut and Pennsylvania. Oklahoma and Texas were the only top-12 states west of the Mississippi River.