AUGUSTA, Maine — The grades assigned to Maine schools this week under a new state grading system triggered a maelstrom around the unsurprising results: Schools with A’s were generally in wealthier communities, while those with F’s were generally in lower-income ones.

Giving schools grades brought this reality of an income divide to the forefront of public discussion, which in the past few days has largely shifted from the merits of the grading system to how adjustments in funding for rich and poor school districts can or can’t equalize opportunities for Maine students. The LePage administration is hopeful that the Legislature will support a proposal to route millions of dollars over the next two years to some of the state’s lowest-performing schools.

Meanwhile, the pressure on public schools, particularly high schools, is considerable this week, given the fact that the state’s 11th-graders are scheduled to take the SAT on Saturday, which will have a considerable effect on their schools’ next round of grades.

There are myriad reasons why a household’s income is often a strong indicator of how a student from that household performs in school, according to Dr. David Silvernail, director of the University of Southern Maine’s Center for Education Policy, Applied Research and Evaluation. Other problems often come with poverty, ranging from parents with low levels of education to higher rates of child abuse and neglect. Parents in poor families sometimes are forced to work multiple jobs, which cuts down on the amount of time and resources they can devote to supporting their children’s education.

Silvernail said there are examples in Maine of high-poverty schools performing well, but they’re the exception, not the rule.

“In a high-poverty community, you can defy the odds, but it’s hard work,” said Silvernail. “It takes longer and requires a different level of funding. If you don’t do anything, the relationship is going to be strong until you take action and try to change it.”

According to a Bangor Daily News analysis, Department of Education data show there is a correlation between a school’s percentage of students receiving free or reduced-price lunch — a measure often used to indicate a school community’s socioeconomic status — and the grade it received. Among the nine high schools in Maine that earned an A, none had more than 20 percent of their students receiving free or reduced-price lunch rates. Conversely, no high school with an F grade had less than 40 percent of students receiving free or reduced-price lunch.

Among elementary and middle schools, the trend is similar, but there are more examples of lower-income schools succeeding. Schools receiving A’s ranged from Pond Cove Elementary School in Cape Elizabeth, where 2.2 percent of students receive free and reduced-price lunch, to Phillips Elementary School in Franklin County, where nearly 80 percent of students eat lunch at free or reduced rates. Only four of the elementary schools that received A’s had more than 60 percent of their student body eligible for free and reduced-price lunch.

The connection between family income and F grades among elementary schools was clearer. Free and reduced-price lunch rates in those schools ranged from about 36 percent all the way to 97 percent at Governor James B. Longley Elementary School in Lewiston, which received the worst elementary school score in Maine.

LePage tried to counter the argument about socioeconomics’ impact on school grades Thursday with the release of a list of 21 schools with free and reduced-price lunch rates above 50 percent that received A’s or B’s.

“Overcoming poverty himself, Gov. LePage’s own personal story shows that income barriers do not define destiny,” said LePage spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett. “Poverty does not equate to failure, and we hope these grades and the data website will lead to healthy conversations about how these high poverty schools are achieving great results.”

Silvernail has led research on the topic of how schools can succeed despite poverty in the community or loss of funds. He said he viewed LePage’s grading system as flawed because it didn’t take into account funding levels, not that he thinks any school should be excused from excellence on that basis. Instead, he said measuring a school’s efficiency, rather than just test scores and student achievement, would be more indicative of a school’s performance. In other words, which schools are doing better despite having fewer resources?

“There is clearly a strong relationship between poverty and achievement,” he said. “If you have two schools and one is high poverty and the other is low poverty, about half the difference in their scores can be explained by the poverty level. However, we found high-poverty schools in Maine that are defying those odds.”

The schools identified by Silvernail’s study include Bowdoinham Community School, which was given a C in the grading system; Great Salt Bay Community School in Damariscotta, which got a B; and Hampden Academy, which also got a B.

Common themes among what Silvernail calls “more efficient schools” in a lengthy 2012 study were a variety of learning experiences, including aggressive remediation and enrichment programs that focus on individual students’ needs. In general, those schools also employ rigorous expectations but allow students more control and responsibility for their own learning.

“These schools are also promoting and supporting this intellectual development in cost-efficient ways,” reads Silvernail’s report. “They are providing their community, parents and students a higher return on spending and are getting a bigger bang for their buck. The good news is that this work is not extremely expensive, it does not require external experts and it is already being done in all types of schools in Maine.”

But none of this stops many educators from pointing to a school’s funding level as a key component of its performance. In Eastport-area schools, for example, Superintendent James Underwood says budget cuts in recent year have led to classrooms that contain three grade levels and extremely sparse budgets for textbooks, supplies and technology upgrades.

“We can barely scrape enough tax money together here locally to fund the very basics,” said Underwood.

Rep. Peter Johnson, R-Greenville, a member of the Education Committee in his fourth term in the Legislature, says routing more funding toward not-so-affluent schools in Maine is his primary goal as a lawmaker. He has sponsored several bills that would alter how money flows to districts in the state’s Essential Programs and Services formula, which is how the state determines what communities should spend on their schools. Due to the efforts of Johnson and others, the EPS formula is being studied at length. The results will be delivered to lawmakers in time for next year’s legislative session.

“It’s still out of balance in my view,” said Johnson. “Coming out of this effort, what I would expect to figure out is some mechanism that you could tie more funds directly to economic disadvantages.”

During the unveiling of the school grades Wednesday, Maine Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen said that his department is already considering changing the formula when grades are re-released this fall for high schools and next spring for elementary schools. He has said the grades no longer will be distributed along a bell curve and that data from the university and community college systems about the level of remedial work needed by students could be incorporated, but he has not indicated that a community’s wealth or a school’s efficiency will be a factor.

One thing Bowen has promised is that the department will target funds and resources toward the lowest-performing schools. In addition to federal funding that already flows to low-performing, low-income Title 1 schools, LePage has proposed spending $3 million over the next two years to help non-Title 1 schools, but that provision requires legislative approval.

Bowen has said that money could be used to hire consultants or specialists to train teachers and administrators and that the department could play a role in helping schools discover best practices from one another or otherwise collaborate.

“We want to figure out what is working in schools, and we want to use that to help schools that are struggling,” said Bowen. “We want to focus on growth. Even if students are not at that proficient level, we want to make sure there was growth every year.”

Rep. Brian Hubbell, D-Bar Harbor, a member of the Education Committee who analyzed school funding and other education issues before becoming a lawmaker, said he is not a fan of the grading system but can see some good coming out of it.

“It reinforced that Falmouth and Cape Elizabeth kids are entering life with many more advantages than kids in Millinocket,” said Hubbell. “If what we’re doing is talking about the performance of an individual school, it’s not fair. There’s no doubt that teachers in Millinocket are faced with the extent of the challenge more than teachers in affluent districts are.”

Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.