December 12, 2019

School-funding question

Supporters of a proposed citizens initiative to increase school funding will be looking for signatures at voting places next month, but questions about their proposal will take a lot longer to answer than most people have time for on their way out of the voting booth. And some of the answers won’t be known until the measure became law.

The referendum question is the understandable result of the state’s inability or unwillingness to provide K-12 funding, through General Purpose Aid to Education, at anything like the level called for starting in 1985. The lack of funding in many communities, especially during the recession of the early 1990s, shifted an increasing burden to property taxpayers or schools simply did without needed teachers, supplies or maintenance. Often, the result was a combination of higher property taxes and still inadequate resources, leading to frustration and for demands for measures like this one, which was produced by a group called the Citizens Committee for Increased School Funding.

The group’s remedy, if it gets on the ballot and is passed, would direct an additional 5 percent of revenue from sales and incomes taxes to local aid for schools. If the measure were in effect this year, it would have meant an additional $103 million to the $664 million the state currently contributes and made the state the majority source for the first time in a decade.

This is how the state-local split in funding ought to be, but unless there is some provision for requiring a certain increase in effort in GPA in the years after the initiative goes into effect, municipalities could confront the same problem that created much of the current unhappiness. In the late 1980s, school funding rose dramatically and school districts responded by hiring more teachers or increasing the pay of the ones they had, starting new programs or doing long-deferred maintenance. The money was put to good use – Maine schools were behind their national peers by many measures – but when the increases stopped in the early 1990s, the expenses were still there and it was up to property taxpayers to pay the difference.

The state, after strong and sometimes none-too-polite encouragement from property taxpayers, has been slowly increasing GPA as a percentage of total spending during the last few years. But would it continue that effort if more than $100 million in sales and income taxes suddenly were shifted to schools? If it did not, the same boom and bust that hit schools 10 years ago would return. A related question: UMaine economist Ralph Townsend asks whether the state would be as willing to pay the bills for teacher retirement and school construction if this measure passed.

The increase contemplated by the citizens group is substantial, but it is not enough to meet basic education requirements, according to the state Department of Education. Its Essential Programs and Services model estimates that Maine schools will need an additional $147 million just to come up to “essential.” And that’s not including any break for property taxpayers. How a referendum question would work in getting to this funding level is unclear.

This question is likely to be popular among voters, get on the ballot easily and be passed. But while the state funding of schools still has a long way to go, Maine needs to vigorously debate this question’s likely effects and ensure it avoids pushing Maine communities back into the same fiscal hole from which they are just starting to emerge.

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