April 07, 2020


A recent report by the Brookings Institution pointed out that Maine has had many good development ideas over the last few decades, but that it has often failed to adequately sustain them, “which has undercut the effectiveness of under or unfunded initiatives.” Something of the same problem is confronting Essential Programs and Services, and Maine must both put up sufficient funds and show patience to avoid creating another failed program.

Gubernatorial candidate Barbara Merrill recently scolded Gov. John Baldacci because the school funding formula, she said, “has threatened Maine’s small schools more than anything in a long, long time. It’s because it’s a one-size-fits-all school funding formula.”

The data on whether large or small schools have been helped or harmed by the new formula is far from complete, and there’s a good reason for that: the state has assumed it will pay for 55 percent of pre-K-12 education and would take four years to reach that level. It is only two years into that. Though funding levels and the formula are two different things, they are related. Giving the formula the funding expected before declaring it a failure would be fairer than dismissing it now.

The biggest drivers in how school districts are being affected by the formula are demographics and property values. The number of school-age children in Maine is dropping, and when it falls in a specific community, the formula reflects this. And some towns are seeing property values rise 20 percent or 30 percent in a single year – the formula uses property valuation as a measure of ability to pay.

That combination hits districts hard. In small communities a relatively few properties rising steeply would have more effect than in a large town. A few small school districts also would have felt more of a drop between 2006 and ’07 because transition money gave them a funding increase of at least 5 percent in the first year but guaranteed only flat funding in the second. Larger districts were promised a lesser increase in ’06 – 2.5 percent – so those held to flat funding the next year didn’t have as far to fall.

Essential Programs and Services is an attempt to figure out what education ought to cost for each student in Maine, making it necessarily a formula that will need regular adjustment. Honest doubt could be expressed about whether property valuation is the best measure of a community’s ability to pay (though finding an alternative is harder than it looks, especially considering that 20 percent of property taxes come from out of state).

Maine ought to look at the formula, adjust it carefully as experience dictates and continue to work on equity for all students. But it shouldn’t throw out a major program while it is still being put in place and before enough information is known about its effects. The state has tried that with economic development – and the results haven’t been great.

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