AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage, already known for making education reform a priority of his governorship, arguably has proposed his most sweeping changes yet.

The proposals in LePage’s biennial budget plan have had a week to germinate since their late-night release on Jan. 6. While there is little question some elements will encounter resistance from education groups and in the Legislature, it’s obvious LePage is pursuing a vision he has for Maine schools: less expensive, more efficient and designed to meet the varied needs of individual students.

“Rather than spend money on a bloated administrative structure, we will direct funding to where it is needed the most: our students and our underpaid teachers in the classrooms,” LePage’s summary of his latest budget proposal reads.

In using his budget to spur an overhaul of Maine’s public education system, LePage is treading on ground where past governors have stumbled and drawing accusations that his proposals will hurt schools rather than help them because of his focus on austerity. Sen. Rebecca Millett of Cape Elizabeth, the ranking Senate Democrat on the Legislature’s Education Committee, said LePage is trying to do way too much far too quickly.

“The overarching concern I have about the education budget proposal is the sheer amount of education policy that he is trying to ram through the budget process,” Millett said. “I don’t believe this is the place to do it, especially around such large issues.”

Funding reduced

Although overall state funding for pre-kindergarten through high school is up, LePage is proposing reducing general purpose aid to public schools, which doesn’t include teacher retirement costs, by about $20 million to $991 million in the next fiscal year. That’s higher than LePage’s previous proposal but lower than the more than $1 billion flowing to Maine schools this year — a number that was supplemented by a one-time $15 million boost that the Legislature appropriated in early 2016.

Part of LePage’s justification for GPA funding levels is that while per-pupil spending has risen by about 27 percent over the past decade, the number of students in Maine schools has dropped by about 11 percent to less than 180,000.

LePage also is proposing that the state cease funding for superintendents, which is the stick part of a carrot-and-stick approach he is taking in an effort to consolidate administrative functions and reduce the number of superintendents. That proposal, if enacted, will push something in the neighborhood of $66 million in costs from state government to local districts.

However, there’s a number proposed in LePage’s budget that is relatively unknown outside government and education circles: the minimum expected property tax rate for education. School districts must raise local funds based on that number if they want full subsidy from the state. This year that number is 8.3, which means a town must devote to education at least $8.30 for every $1,000 of property valuation. LePage proposes lowering that number to 8.29 in fiscal year 2018.

“That would seem to indicate a very slight amount more of GPA to local schools. But when you get into it, because of other components of the budget, you see that’s not the case,” said Rep. Paul Stearns, R-Guilford, a retired superintendent who previously served on the Legislature’s Education Committee. “You’ve got to dig into all the different components to find out how they’ve calculated that number.”

The question of Question 2

In November, just more than 50 percent of Mainers approved a referendum to create a new 3 percent tax on income above $200,000, which is designed to funnel $150 million or more annually into public education. LePage has proposed delaying implementation of the law for a year, which means the taxes would take effect in 2018 and the money for schools would begin to flow the following year.

The governor argues that the tax would be disastrous for economic development in Maine while proponents of the law said better-funded schools can produce skilled workers that Maine needs.

“Now more than ever, after well-meaning citizens voted on these initiatives with little or no understanding of how destructive they would be to Maine’s fragile economy, we are teetering on the precipice of a financial catastrophe,” LePage wrote in a letter that accompanied his budget proposal. “Unfortunately, liberal special-interest groups are trying to reverse all of our fiscally responsible reforms.”

Rob Walker, president of the Maine Education Association, the teachers union that backed Question 2, said LePage is ignoring the will of voters in 2016 on Question 2 and in 2004 when they passed a referendum calling for state government to pay 55 percent of the cost of K-12 public education.

“The governor is playing games with the will of the people and sending a message to Maine students that their education isn’t important enough to fund,” Walker said in a written statement after the budget release.

Down with EPS

One of the most sweeping proposals by LePage involves another concept buried in the bureaucratic weeds: the Essential Programs and Services funding model, which dictates how much funding the state provides to each school unit. EPS has been the subject of almost constant legislative debate for years, including a major $450,000 study of it commissioned in 2013 that deemed the program fair to Maine schools but underfunded.

LePage’s budget bill calls for a total repeal of the EPS formula next year and a replacement of the formula for the 2019-2020 school year. It’s a massive undertaking, but a blue ribbon commission spearheaded by LePage last year is working on the task and is expected to produce reports during the next couple of years.

“I expect that the work being done by the blue ribbon commission and others will maybe lead to a totally new approach for the funding formula,” Jim Rier, a retired commissioner of the Maine Department of Education who remains involved in analyzing education policy, said.

Stop penalizing low-income districts

One provision of the budget that likely will be looked at favorably by educators is LePage’s proposal to exclude federal funding for economically disadvantaged students from the state funding formula. Currently, districts that receive federal Title 1 dollars see a corresponding reduction in their state subsidy. LePage wants to end that. Maine schools received approximately $45 million in Title 1 funding this year, according to Rier.

“It’s not a dramatic change in the total amount of EPS, but it’s an adjustment that’s been needed for quite some time,” Rier said.

However, there’s a flip side of that coin. LePage is proposing to increase student-to-teacher ratios in the upper grades — going from 15-1 to 16-1 at high schools, for example — in the funding formula as a way to make up for the Title 1 change. Stearns said that could be a step in the right direction.

“If we’re looking to save some big money, we really need to look at class sizes in Maine. The money is in personnel,” he said. “Overall, we have not reduced our teaching staff at the level we have reduced our administrative staff over the last decade. … I’m not so sure the state should be subsidizing school systems that have refused to budge on class sizes.”

Consolidating administration

School administration consolidation is a familiar concept in Maine, where a major push under Democratic Gov. John Baldacci largely failed to produce much in the way of savings. In his budget bill, executive orders and other proposed legislation, LePage is launching the effort anew. He regularly complains that Maine has far too many superintendents. In addition to cutting state funding for administrators, LePage has proposed competitive grants to spur school districts to consolidate on their own.

It’s going to be a tough sell on a number of fronts. Stearns said superintendents and principals are tasked with ever-increasing mandates ranging from data collection for the federal government to increasing state requirements around bullying.

“It’s a necessary evil that someone has to run the ship,” Stearns said. “To just say, ‘We’re not going to fund that component anymore’ is disingenuous. … You can always find a better way, but let’s make sure it’s actually better before we jump.”

Rier said LePage has learned from Baldacci’s mistakes.

“The main difference is the fact that [LePage’s approach] would be more locally grown, if you will,” he said. “It’s something that school districts can apply for and be creative. … It remains to be seen how many units might step up and be willing to do that.”

Statewide teacher contract

The concept of a statewide teacher contract negotiated by the state — as opposed to smaller contracts that are currently negotiated at school districts all over Maine — has been discussed by LePage for years. That proposal so far is creating more questions than answers, chief among which is how much it will cost, presuming lower-paid teachers would receive raises so salaries are equalized.

The Maine Education Association, which represents about 24,000 teachers in Maine, says that amounts to state government stripping local control from school districts. Millett said the concept could have merit but that it needs to go through a public review process.

“It involves a long, robust conversation that I think is appropriate to have, but it needs to be done right,” she said. “My concern is that, like a lot of other proposals from the governor lately, there’s no support or resources to do it.”

Cementing a legacy

LePage came into office on campaign promises to reform public education. Early in his tenure, he spearheaded the creation of charter schools in Maine and in later years has led efforts to reduce student debt and control the cost of higher education in Maine. Regardless, more of his education proposals have been rejected — including his attempt in 2012 to let public education dollars follow students to private and religious schools.

If LePage closes out his final two years as governor by accomplishing any significant portion of his current proposals, he will long be remembered as a governor who forever altered the face of public education in Maine. Between now and the end of June, when a biennial budget will need to be enacted to avoid a government shutdown, LePage’s opponents will be intent on sending him away as the governor whose proposals were too radical to ever become law.

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.