Forecaster Forum: Maine shouldn't favor small schools over large, or rural over urban

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School funding in Maine has changed, and its impact does not bode well for students in most larger schools districts across the state.

You may remember that one issue that was quickly pushed through the Legislature was a bill sponsored by Senate President Kevin Raye, R-Perry: An Act to Restore Equity in the Funding Formula. This bill, now law, drastically changed the essential programs and services funding formula.

In a nutshell, by changing three critical pieces of the EPS funding formula, Raye’s bill shifted $6.1 million from mostly larger schools to smaller schools – those with fewer than 1,200 students. The changes to the EPS formula were not tied to any metrics of student or teacher performance. Rather, it was based merely on geography, pitting urban against rural and mostly large against small.

At first glance, the consequences of these changes may not be obvious. But one of the most bothersome aspects of the new law is the changes to the EPS funding formula are unprecedented.

Never before has a single legislator changed the EPS formula. And, there are sound reasons why it is not good practice for one lawmaker to make such sweeping changes. Raye’s actions single-handedly manipulated numbers that led to statewide policy changes benefiting specific school districts – particularly, his own.

As someone who grew up in rural Maine, I understand the needs of a rural school district. And, now, as a lawmaker representing Maine’s largest city, I surely understand the demands of an urban area. My view is that it is my job to ensure that every student in Maine has an equal chance to a quality education.

So it is important to fully understand that there is more to the recent story by The Forecaster’s Emily Parkhurst, which said “Contrary to some projections, most schools in greater Portland will receive increased state funding next year” if estimates become official.

To be clear, this increase is a one-time benefit to greater Portland schools and it stems not from Raye’s EPS changes, but instead because $19 million has been added in General Purpose Aid to to Portland schools. The General Purpose Aid funding is a one-time increase, while changes to the EPS formula are permanent. And because of the permanent changes to the EPS formula, in the 2012-2013 school year:

• Portland loses $245,000. With the old EPS formula, Portland would have received an increase of $1.4 million in funding, but because of the EPS changes Portland funding is reduced to only $1.17 million.

• Cape Elizabeth loses $514,000. With the old EPS formula, Cape Elizabeth would have received an increase of nearly $309,000 in funding, but because of the EPS changes Cape Elizabeth’s funding is now a loss of more than $245,000.

• South Portland loses $48,000. With the old EPS formula, South Portland would have received an increase of more than $670,000, but because of the EPS changes South Portland’s funding is reduced to less than $623,000.

So parents, teachers, and students in greater Portland, brace yourself. We are about to be double-whammied. If future state’s general purpose aid decreases, then not only will our districts see a cut in regular funding, but we also will be hit with the loss of $6.1 million that’s being shelled out to smaller districts.

Parents and taxpayers know that when Augusta sends less money from one year to the next year, then there are only three options to make up the difference: increase property taxes, cut programs, or cut teachers.

Lawmakers in Augusta must fulfill our promise to Maine students. That is why I will continue to support a full review, by an independent consultant, of the state’s education funding formula. We must conduct this now, because few communities across the state believe the formula’s fair or predictable for school districts.

We all say that students are our priority, so now we must level the playing field so that every student in Maine, regardless of rural or urban, large or small, has an opportunity for a meaningful education.

Maine state Sen. Justin Alfond, D-Portland, is the assistant Senate minority leader and lead Democrat on the Education and Cultural Affairs Committee.

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