April 08, 2020

Lawmakers to seek advice on education `equity’

AUGUSTA — Facing some vocal opposition from activists and resistance from lawmakers, a proposal to add the concept of education equity to the state constitution will be subject to close scrutiny in coming weeks.

Because some have suggested the new wording could quickly land the state in court, the Legislature’s Education Committee decided Tuesday to seek advice on the measure’s legal implications before deciding how to handle the bill.

“This is important work and it needs to be done,” Education Commissioner J. Duke Albanese told the panel. But, he cautioned, “I don’t know if the words chosen … are the right ones.” The proposal, put forward by Sen. Susan Longley, D-Liberty, says that state and local support of public schools must be “equitable” and “adequate.” The amendment would also add language to the constitution to make education “a fundamental right.”

The commissioner suggested that the Education Committee recommend the appointment of a citizen panel that would include one or two legal scholars. It would look into the proposed language and its ramifications.

The committee may still choose to do that but, for the time being, decided to look into the issue on its own, with advice from the Attorney General’s Office.

The contentious words are “big enough to drive a school bus through as far as the courts are concerned,” said Mary Adams, an activist who vigorously opposes the proposed amendment.

She said 40 states have been taken to court because of the education clauses in their constitutions. Maine’s clause is considered weak by many because it only requires that the Legislature make the towns support public schools.

Recently, both New Hampshire and Vermont have lost cases brought by poor school districts that said they were unfairly treated by the states’ mechanisms for distributing education funds. Similar cases in Maine have been rejected by the courts because there is no constitutional guarantee of education equity.

The Maine Municipal Association opposes the measure because it too fears that the meaning of the words equitable and adequate would ultimately be decided in court.

Adams also criticized the proposed amendment for usurping local control. She said it would lead to the return of the uniform property tax. Adams led the fight 20 years ago to kill that short-lived measure, which called for a statewide valuation of towns, and it was repealed.

Longley, the sponsor of LD 1601, said in an interview that Adams had not done her homework. Maine courts have found that, even in tight fiscal times, the state’s funding formula is equitable. Therefore, equity and adequacy are “safe” words, Longley said. She said she wants to change the constitution so it will reflect the way state government and local municipalities work together to support schools and to reflect decades of case law that have found that practice to be acceptable.

As for local control, the current education clause gives all power to the state, not municipalities, she said. “Now, the constitution says the state shall make the towns pay. How is that local control?” Longley said.

“She’s trying to scare people,” she said of Adams’ efforts. Adams was the leader of a citizen group that lobbied successfully for defeat of the Compact for Maine’s Forests, a controversial plan put together by the governor and paper companies for the management of the state’s timberland.

Longley said she would support further study of the amendment.

“A study beats the alternative of our bill dying,” she said.

Before investing a lot of time in reviewing the proposed amendment, some committee members first want to settle on its aims.

“You talk about a partnership, I guess that’s already there. [The state] puts $500 million into the formula,” said Sen. Mary Small, R-Bath.

“If the public is going to vote on this … they’re going to need to know more than that this formalizes a partnership between the state and locals,” she added.

Committee members heard a lot of support for the amendment from students from Searsport District High School, the only school in the state to have its accreditation revoked by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges. The association found that the run-down building so interfered with the school’s academic programs that it took the unusual step of yanking its accreditation.

Students and parents who addressed the committee said they believed a more equitable way of distributing state funds may have avoided the situation.

“It is time for the state of Maine to commit to its partnership with our schools by increasing its school funding to give our rural schools an equal chance of success,” said Deb Middleswart, a member of Save Our School, a volunteer group trying to raise money to renovate the Searsport school.

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