In its Oct. 15 editorial, the Bangor Daily News encouraged voters to reject Question 2, the ballot measure proposing to tax our way to better schools, arguing it is “not the solution to real problems with Maine’s school funding system.” While the BDN is unquestionably right about this, I would still go further and argue that even in an election season as divisive as this one, opposition to Question 2 is something almost every Maine voter can get behind, including Maine’s teachers.
For those of us with a more conservative bent, for example, there are plenty of reasons to oppose Question 2. The ballot measure’s new tax, as the BDN points out, would give some Maine residents one of the highest marginal tax rates in the country. Question 2 also contains a bizarre provision making the new tax permanent by requiring that it be “imposed and collected,” regardless of whether Maine’s income tax brackets are “changed, replaced or eliminated.”
As for accountability, will Question 2 actually improve student outcomes, as its supporters promise? We will never know because the initiative contains no provision for its impact to be tracked and measured. These new tax dollars are simply sent to Augusta, and if the Legislature doesn’t decide to use them for something else, which has happened with any number of “dedicated” funding streams in the past, they go back out the door to be spent with no questions asked.
Those on the political left, who might be more philosophically inclined to support Question 2, should also reject the measure because little of this new money is going where it is most needed. As the BDN pointed out in its editorial, the state’s school funding model is based on property valuation, with the result that communities such as “Lubec, Greenville and Lamoine” would get “no additional state support” from Question 2, even though the tax it imposes, permanently, will raise more than $150 million per year.
Who will get all that money? Combined, Yarmouth, Falmouth, Freeport and Scarborough will get more than $12 million in new funding. Cape Elizabeth, which has a median household income of $92,000, will get $2.5 million, while more than 100 other Maine towns will get nothing. How is pumping more money into Maine’s wealthiest communities, while providing no added support to those most in need, supposed to improve outcomes for students across Maine?
For towns that do get more money, it is important to point out that the measure’s vague and confusing wording makes it unclear whether locally elected school boards will have any say over how that money actually gets spent. The initiative’s actual legal language appears to say that these new tax dollars must be used, exclusively, to pay “salary and benefit costs” for public school educators but is silent on any other uses.
This is why I would argue, paradoxically, that Maine’s educators should oppose the measure along with the rest of us. The measure says nothing about whether these funds can be used for teacher professional development, for instance, or to pay for release time so teachers can learn and improve their craft. There is nothing in the bill about supporting innovative classroom practices or reimbursing teachers for the out-of-pocket expenses they sometimes undertake to meet the needs of their students.
In fact, there is no language whatsoever in Question 2 about who controls these new dollars, so it is unclear who gets to decide how these dollars are spent, or whether or not that spending constitutes ”direct support for student learning” as defined by the measure’s language. Do district leaders decide? Can the state, when the spending is later reported by the districts as required by the ballot measure, decide such spending was inappropriate or illegal?
Question 2 creates a permanent, seemingly unalterable new tax, with zero accountability and seemingly little, if any local control. Money from the tax will flow to some of Maine’s wealthiest communities, to be spent in ways that might have no impact at all on student learning. It attempts, in just two pages of confusing legal language, to impose huge changes on Maine’s tax code and school funding model, both of which are dizzyingly complicated. It may be well-intentioned, but it deserves to be soundly defeated on Election Day.On that, I would argue, we can all agree.
Stephen Bowen served as commissioner of the Maine Department of Education from 2011 to 2013.