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Policy Wonk: A healthy Maine economy needs a healthy educational system

Opinion

Policy Wonk: A healthy Maine economy needs a healthy educational system

At the national level, and in Maine, educational research data is increasingly clear: we are disinvesting in higher and K-12 public education. We’ve been doing so for a long time.

And though there is some variation in the data, the results are equally clear: student achievement in the U.S. in critical subject matter areas (math, science, reading) is lagging behind that of many other nations. Maine’s performance is clearly lagging behind that of most other states.

The link between education and a healthy economy is not open to debate. A recent report in The Wall Street Journal presented data showing that “over the past half century, countries with higher math, science, and reading skills have grown faster than countries with lower-skilled populations.” The report further noted that “... too often we neglect a key ingredient of our nation’s economic future – the human capital produced by our K-12 school system.” And it warned that "if we fail to reform K-12 schools, we’ll have slow growth and more income inequality.”

Maine pays lip service to these realities. But our actions suggest we are not putting our money where our mouth is. For some time we have not made the educational choices needed to produce the healthy economy we say we want.

Two recent press headlines make the point: “USM says physics major is underused, will be cut,”  and “Maine school funding much lower than before the recession.” These actions speak loudly; they are chilling and far reaching in their importance for Maine’s educational and economic future. They do not stand alone.

Let’s be clear, Gov. Paul LePage and his administration did not begin this disinvestment process; it goes back many years. But he has embraced it with unmatched zeal; it fits in with his (Republican) tax- and cost-cutting agendas. Recent legislative actions are rife with examples.

At the University of Maine system level, the fiscal 2013 appropriation is $2.3 million less than the fiscal 2012 appropriation. The fiscal 2013 appropriation is $6.2 million below the fiscal 2008 level. University research and development bond issues were killed by the governor, and newly authorized bond issues for essential building maintenance and new construction are well below existing needs. Whether the governor will actually issue these bonds, even if they are approved by the voters, is problematic.

At the K-12 level, recent legislative decisions are far more damaging. They include:

• Shifting a significant portion of teacher retirement costs from the state to already strapped local school districts.

• Compelling local school districts to bear a significant portion of new charter-school costs, instead of fashioning a state (or a shared, state, local, and parental) funding mechanism for these unproved K-12 educational models.

• Failing to fashion universal (or significantly expanded) pre-kindergarten and full-day kindergarten school programs. These programs have a proven benefit: they bring low-income and second language students up to speed as they enter elementary grade programs.

• Failing to increase or maintain Baldacci-era momentum for cost-effective school district consolidations. The failure to consolidate, and/or the re-fragmenting of consolidated districts in the name of local control wastes scarce tax dollars and perpetuates school district program inequities.

• Failing again to meet the state’s long-standing statutory commitment (reinforced in 2004 by a citizens initiative) to fund 55 percent of aggregate annual K-12 “essential school program” (ESP) costs; in fiscal 2012 the state provided only 45 percent of these costs.

• Failing again to provide more than a small fraction of needed capital construction funds for new school construction and/or the renovation of existing K-12 schools.

None of these funding decisions and policies are likely to change soon. Republicans and Lepage are unyielding in their call for smaller government, and a continued shrinking of the state’s revenue base. Democrats and independents have been at best too silent, and at worst complicit in shaping this agenda.

Given these realities, long-inadequate educational funding will remain the norm in Maine, and the situation may well get worse before it gets better. And if education drives the economy, as most economists believe, Maine’s economy will not improve. It will continue to languish.

If these dire consequences for Maine’s schools and our economy are to be avoided, Democrats and independents must stop the calculated shrinkage of state revenues. They could begin by making permanent the temporary (two-year) increases in the state’s sales, meal, and lodging taxes recently put in place to balance the biannual budget. These increases were modest, and if made permanent, could be earmarked to meet ESP funding needs.

Beyond this step, the Legislature’s Tax Expenditure Review Task Force could expand its charge (finding/repealing $40 million of unfair/unnecessary state subsidies going to special interest groups, and thereby preserving Maine’s revenue sharing program) to include finding/repealing another $40 million or $100 million of unwarranted state subsidies to more fully meet a broadened range of Maine’s education needs.

This is not wishful thinking. It is simply getting our priorities straight.