April 06, 2020

School funding proposal targets essential services> New state plan would cha

AUGUSTA — The Legislature’s Education Committee Thursday was presented with the outline of a new way to distribute state aid to schools that would be based on what classes and services students need to succeed.

The current formula reimburses school districts for a portion of what they spent to run their schools in the prior year. The formula takes little account of how the money is spent.

The new proposal would allocate money to school districts to pay for those services that are determined to be “essential” by state officials.

The state Board of Education’s Essential Programs and Services Committee told lawmakers Thursday that the necessities include classes in the eight subject areas covered by the Learning Results, the state’s new academic standards, as well as school personnel including teachers, counselors and librarians. The essentials also would include transportation, health services and technological resources.

The theory behind the new approach is that by providing money to pay for only the essentials, the state is helping to ensure that all students have an equal opportunity to excel.

“I think we’re on to something here,” Education Commissioner J. Duke Albanese said during an interview after the committee’s presentation.

Because the state already has developed academic standards that detail what students should know in eight subject areas, Maine is ahead of other states that have ventured down the essential services road, he said. States like Wyoming and New Jersey that have tried to define and pay for essential services often have ended up in court over their plans.

Since Maine already has defined what is essential through the Learning Results, Albanese said the big remaining question is how much the state would need to contribute to the new funding mechanism.

Because the committee, along with outlining what is essential, also recommends smaller class sizes and more advanced education for teachers, Albanese said it likely will require additional money to turn the proposal into practice.

The benefit of the essential services approach, he said, is that it provides a sound basis for the state to decide what educational services for which it will pay.

“It gives you the rationale to ask for what you need, but it is not so out there as to be unrealistic,” Albanese said.

Another major question is how the money would be distributed. The committee did not reach a decision on that issue, said its chairman, Wes Bonney, a member of the State Board of Education. Two suggestions are that the state could issue block grants to school districts to use as they see fit or the state could provide money earmarked for specific uses. For example, the state could award money based on numbers of classes, programs or students.

For the plan to succeed — politically and otherwise — Albanese said he favored the block grant approach to leave decisions on how to spend the education money up to the locals.

Coupled with its report, the state board committee submitted a study that compared the characteristics of high-performing schools against their lower-performing peers. School success was measured by student performance in the Maine Educational Assessment. Schools whose scores were above what was expected were dubbed high-performing with low-performing schools scoring below expectations.

The study, conducted by the Maine Education Policy Research Institute at the University of Southern Maine, found that high-performing schools had more teachers with advanced degrees, offered more advanced science and math courses and provided more textbooks and supplies.

This led Bonney to conclude that “if we set high expectations and high opportunities, students will perform that way.”

His committee will spend the coming year seeking answers to some of the still lingering questions. In its next report, due in a year, the committee will recommend how to transition from the current formula to one based on essential services along with more information on how much the new plan would cost and how the money should be distributed.

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