In this March 19, 2021, file photo, desks are spaced apart ahead of planned in-person learning at an elementary school in Philadelphia. Credit: Matt Rourke / AP

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To the surprise of no one, this week we learned that students nationwide and here in Maine have experienced significant setbacks in their education in the past two years. Results from math and reading exams from the National Assessment of Educational Progress were released Monday, showing continued but steeper declines in student achievement in both areas.

The tests are administered to hundreds of thousands of randomly selected students, typically every other year, and the results give us an idea of baseline literacy and mathematical skill for fourth- and eighth-grade students across the country.

What we saw was a shocking decline nationwide. National reading scores for both grades fell by three points from 2019 to 2022, while math scores dropped by five points.

But in Maine, things were worse. Much worse. Reading scores here dropped to the lowest level on record for fourth- and eighth-graders. The decline in eighth-grade reading scores was actually the largest drop of any state in the country, while eighth-grade math results had eroded to their lowest level since 1992, a 30-year low.

And while this particular study focuses its attention on these two grade levels, we also have seen how bad things are for kids in other age groups. Younger kids are faced with language and literacy deficits caused, in part, by shutdowns and unnecessarily restrictive mask policies that made phonics and language learning nearly impossible.

Many older students who saw nearly all of their high school experience disrupted are frustrated at the almost nonexistent education they received, and many are now finding themselves entirely unprepared for college.

This shameful failure was, I believe, quite avoidable. We see now the price our children have had to pay for the decisions made by buck-passing political leaders who preached to us that we needed to “follow the science” while wholly ignoring it, keeping our children in a prison of paranoia and fear when it was no longer necessary.

And it is no coincidence, I believe, that Maine, whose governor, education commissioner and public health officials chose a highly restrictive pandemic response, has fared poorly.

Nevertheless, we are here now, so it is only natural to ask how we fix this problem.

“Maybe we should pour as much money into education as we do entertainment,” cracked a friend of mine recently, while we were discussing this topic. His sentiment is a common one.

Oh, but it was that simple. Money is the “easy answer” to problems, chosen because it is simple to understand. Money, after all, can pay teachers, build schools and buy books, so if we spend more of it, better results will come.

Alas, federal, state and local governments already spend roughly $764.7 billion, or $15,120 per student, on K-12 education alone. We spend more every year in both raw dollars and per pupil spending, even adjusted for inflation, and our results keep declining.

Maine, for its part, appropriated $1.9 billion to the Department of Education in fiscal year 2022, and more than $2 billion in fiscal year 2023. That funding has radically increased over the years through Republican and Democratic administrations, despite the fact that we have lost more than 12,000 students in our school system in just the last 10 years.

But that is just the routine education spending we have put ourselves on the hook for. Since the pandemic began, we’ve been shoveling an unconscionable amount of money at schools to fix the problems we created.

Schools nationally were allocated $122 billion last year to help reopen schools, deal with mental health issues and address learning loss experienced during the pandemic. And yet only 15 percent of the money dispensed thus far has been spent, which brings up uncomfortable questions about just how much of that money was (or was not) needed and its almost nonexistent impact.

That allocation was the third such education-related expense incurred by the government. The first was a $13.2 billion expenditure contained within the March 2020 CARES Act, which was then added to with a second appropriation of $54.3 billion later that December. All told, the federal government has set aside $190 billion for schools, on top of the money they already get, to try to deal with this problem.

And yet they’re failing, as are state governments. Sooner or later we have to come to grips with the reality that money, while incredibly important, is not a magic wand that we can use to solve systemic problems decades in the making.

Matthew Gagnon, Opinion columnist

Matthew Gagnon of Yarmouth is the chief executive officer of the Maine Policy Institute, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. A Hampden native, he previously served as a senior strategist...