Editor’s note: This is a continuation of an ongoing series, Your School, that examines what is holding back teachers, principals, parents and communities from helping students realize their full potential, and aims to hold up promising efforts that other places might learn from.

As policymakers have fretted over whether Maine spends too much on its schools, more and more research in recent years has shown that boosting the amount schools spend on low-income students can help close persistent achievement gaps and even improve the outlook for poor students later in life.

The same research shows that similar spending boosts for higher-income students don’t have as much of an impact.

While there are variations from district to district, poor and wealthy students tend to get similar treatment under the system Maine has used to allocate school funding for more than a decade .

What the recent school spending studies suggest is that Maine could level the playing field by actually spending more on its poorer students than others — especially if the extra money goes toward proven strategies to help low-income students.

That Maine currently has roughly equal per-student spending doesn’t mean all students have an equal shot at meeting the state’s academic expectations.

“It’s important to recognize that equity is not just about money,” said Jim Rier, a former education commissioner, state education finance director and Maine State Board of Education member. “It’s about, how do we serve those students in the very best way? And not just the high-performing students in those units that are struggling, but all students. It’s very difficult to do.”

Seeking ‘a sweet spot’

For two decades, the state’s goal on paper has been to spend more money on poor students than on their wealthier peers. In fact, that’s become the goal in much of the U.S. as a wave of court decisions have directed states to send more money to poorer school districts so their students have an equal shot at meeting their states’ academic expectations.

Still, most states, like Maine, fall short of that goal. Most manage merely to spend roughly equal amounts per student, according to a 2017 analysis of state education spending by the Urban Institute.

In the 1990s, as a Maine State Board of Education task force designed a new school funding mechanism, the panel didn’t want equal per-pupil spending. It wanted to spend more money on the poorest students.

“[P]roviding equitable opportunities in all Maine schools will require differing levels of resources in different schools,” the committee noted in a 1999 report prepared for the Maine Legislature. “…Thus, the committee recognized that providing equitable opportunities requires more than just providing an equal amount to support each student.”

The committee devised a system, called Essential Programs and Services, through which state officials would determine the cost of providing each student in Maine the education required to meet the Maine Learning Results, the state’s then-newly implemented academic expectations. It would determine the basic cost of educating each student, including teacher salaries and benefits, transportation, building maintenance, staff training, and administration.

The committee agreed that districts should receive extra money to reflect the higher costs of educating students who didn’t speak English as their native language and students who needed special education. Districts should also receive extra money to educate students whose families’ incomes made them eligible for free and reduced-price lunch, the committee determined.

“Research has demonstrated that additional resources are needed in order to help many disadvantaged youth achieve higher levels of performance,” the panel wrote. “The level of resources needed is not completely clear.”

When Essential Programs and Services took effect for the 2005-06 school year, the system tacked an extra 15 percent onto its calculation of what it would cost to educate a low-income student. There’s no requirement that school districts spend the additional money specifically on programs and services to help low-income students.

“There was no evidence that there was a sweet spot,” David Silvernail, who served as a consultant to the Essential Programs and Services task force as co-director of the Maine Education Policy Research Institute, said of the 15 percent addition. “The task force was really left with not a lot of empirical evidence to help them set the weight. Quite frankly, what ended up was a political decision.”

That mechanism in Maine’s school funding system directs more funding to low-income students than would otherwise head their way, but it hasn’t proven enough to ensure that the state’s schools actually spend more money on them.

Evidence mounts

More than a decade later, there’s more evidence to guide policymakers in deciding how much more money to spend on low-income students.

A 2015 study published in the Quarterly Journal of Economics, for example, found long-term benefits from increased spending on poorer students. A 10 percent increase in per-pupil spending throughout a low-income student’s K-12 academic career led to, on average, approximately half a year more in completed education, nearly 10 percent higher wages later in life and a 6.1 percentage-point poverty rate reduction among those students.

The researchers also found that increased spending helped low-income students substantially more than it helped students from higher-income families. Their results came from examining the effects of court-ordered school finance reforms starting in the 1970s that resulted in states directing more money to their poorest school districts.

The added time low-income students spent in school following the funding increases translated into more high school diplomas and college degrees, eliminating half of the average gap in educational attainment between low- and higher-income students.

The increases in per-pupil spending led to teacher salary increases, reduced class sizes and extended school years, the researchers found.

“Taken together, these results highlight how improved access to school resources can profoundly shape the life outcomes of economically disadvantaged children and thereby reduce the intergenerational transmission of poverty,” wrote the researchers, Kirabo Jackson of Northwestern University; Rucker C. Johnson of the University of California, Berkeley; and Claudia Persico of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Other research has examined the effect of increased per-pupil spending on academic achievement tests, and found positive effects, particularly for low-income students.

‘Fairness and equity’

Essential Programs and Services took effect with a funding formula that distributes state funding to school districts based largely on local property values.

A community with relatively low-value real estate ends up with a significant portion of its educational costs covered by the state. A district with valuable, waterfront property encounters the opposite.

During the 2016-17 school year, the state covered 79.6 percent of what it determined to be the cost of education in School Administrative District 24 based in Van Buren. On the other end of the spectrum, state funds covered 2.6 percent of the cost of education in Fayette, a small town west of Augusta with its share of high-value, lakefront property.

Districts with higher proportions of low-income students tend to receive more state funding per student, but the relationship isn’t uniform or all that strong. Some communities with high proportions of low-income students but with valuable waterfront property, such as Greenville and Lubec, end up with small shares of their education bills covered by the state.

There are perennial calls to rewrite, repeal, revisit and rework this formula amid criticisms that it’s not distributing funds equitably.

In 2011, then-Senate President Kevin Raye proposed legislation — which Gov. Paul LePage signed — to direct more state aid to small rural school districts, including some in Washington County, that had seen their state allotments fall substantially due to years of shrinking students populations and rising coastal property values.

Raye described the changes as “a crucially important step forward in injecting a greater degree of fairness and equity into the formula.”

But since the change simply reworked how the state would distribute the same $900 million or so in state education aid, more money for small schools in Washington County meant less for schools in Bangor, Lewiston, Portland and other more populous places.

Last year, citing equity, the LePage administration proposed nixing Essential Programs and Services and the funding formula altogether as part of its state budget proposal. “The new funding formula must ensure that direct instructional programs and services are available to all students and be available in all schools on an equitable basis,” administration budget documents read.

As it exists today, Maine’s funding mechanism already does a decent job of ensuring that there’s a relatively equal amount of funding per student, but it could do more to help out the state’s poorer districts.

That was a major conclusion in 2013 from California-based Picus and Associates, a consulting firm the state Legislature hired to analyze Essential Programs and Services and Maine’s funding formula.

Picus found that a wealthy district wasn’t much more likely than a district with a high percentage of students eligible for free and reduced-price lunch to spend more money per student. “Overall, Maine has designed a school funding system that provides districts with an equitable resource distribution,” the consultant wrote.

The inequities in Maine school funding, Picus noted, come from the fact that wealthy districts can more easily raise local money from property taxes to spend above and beyond the state-determined cost of education. The consultant recommended that Maine “consider new ways” to help school districts “meet the needs of their neediest students.”

State funding can correct for local inequity, but it’s a tradeoff between “the common good and individual liberty,” said Silvernail.

“The state is responsible for the common good, so it should have a formula that lays out how you create equity,” he said. “But individual communities, they need to be most concerned with their kids and their school system, and if they feel they should spend more money on those programs, that’s individual liberty.”

All in all, Maine’s school funding system doesn’t necessarily provide more funding to students in poor school districts and doesn’t provide less. School funding in Maine isn’t progressive, but it isn’t really regressive, either.

The Urban Institute found that, when considering local and state funding, a low-income district in Maine could be expected to spend about $46 less per student than a district with fewer low-income students. Statewide, Maine’s per-pupil spending — both state and local funding — worked out to nearly $13,000 in 2015-16, according to the Maine Department of Education.

‘Not creating losers’

With school funding so dependent on local property taxes — and towns’ and cities’ capacity to raise them — a wealthier community will inevitably be able to raise more money for its local schools than a poorer community.

The state has power to reverse the inequity, but it’s limited when state funding is limited.

“You could create a formula that creates greater equity for the state portion of expenditures,” said Silvernail. “But now, you’d in essence only be able to tackle equity on about half of what’s spent.”

In 2004, Maine voters approved a referendum requiring that the state fund 55 percent of education costs. Fourteen years later, it still hasn’t reached that threshold — and it’s not on track to reach it soon. Next school year, the state will pay slightly less than half, 49.6 percent, of traditional school costs.

But as lawmakers negotiated a new state budget last spring, they agreed on a number of changes that will result in more money flowing to districts with high numbers of low-income students.

— The 15 percent tacked onto the basic, per-student cost of education for every low-income student became 20 percent. State law requires that the newly added funds be spent on “extended learning programs,” such as after-school and summer programs, specifically for low-income students.

The 5-percentage-point bump works out to $28 million out of more than $2 billion in total spending this school year, according to the Maine Department of Education. The original 15 percent works out to $84 million. Both sums are combinations of funds from the state and local property taxes.

— Lawmakers also ended a state practice of withholding some state money from districts that qualified for additional federal aid because they have a large share of low-income students. The change means those low-income districts can simply keep about $40 million in federal Title I funds without having to worry about losing state money because of it.

— Next school year, the state will allow school districts to immediately start counting students in new and expanded public preschool programs toward their total enrollment, giving them immediate access to funds for those students. Districts previously had to wait a year before they could start receiving state funding for new programs, leaving them scrambling to come up with start-up costs.

Already, according to the Department of Education, 13 school districts have notified the state that they plan to start new public preschool programs next school year, and 29 plan to expand existing programs. Currently, 134 districts run public preschool programs, enrolling more than 5,400 children.

Rier called the policy changes included in the budget “a big improvement” in terms of distributing resources where they’re most needed. He would have suggested an even larger percentage bump for low-income students than the 20 percent on which policymakers settled.

Rep. Brian Hubbell, a Bar Harbor Democrat who serves on the Legislature’s budget-writing appropriations committee, said lawmakers were able to change the way school funds are distributed because they were adding funds at the same time — a $162 million increase in state aid spread across two years.

“The only time you can accomplish a change in allocation is when you’re not creating losers,” he said.

Maine Focus is a journalism and community engagement initiative at the Bangor Daily News.

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