The BDN Opinion section operates independently and does not set newsroom policies or contribute to reporting or editing articles elsewhere in the newspaper or on bangordailynews.com.
Timothy Surrette is an associate professor of education at the University of Maine at Augusta and vice chair of the Bangor School Committee. This column reflects his views and expertise alone and does not speak on behalf of the University of Maine System, the Bangor School Department, or any organization in which he is a member.
Most of us recognize that quality pre K-12 education requires significant investment. That, of course, means money. If we want schools with up-to-date infrastructure, well-paid teachers, and high-quality curriculums, it means we need the funding to do that.
But have you ever stopped to think about how money is distributed to one school versus another and why some schools are able to spend considerably more money on their students than other schools?
The answer is complicated and in Maine, it begins with the Essential Services and Programs (EPS) funding formula. According to the Maine Department of Education the EPS formula aims to “determine both the state and local share of funding needed for each school administrative unit (SAU) to have Essential Programs and Services.”
“These Essential Programs and Services are defined as programs and resources that are essential for students to have an equitable opportunity to achieve the Maine Learning Results,” the department says.
But what does equitable mean? Opinions obviously differ, but that question was on the minds of researchers at the Education Law Center, an educational advocacy organization based out of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, who released a report in 2021 titled “Making the Grade: How Fair is School Funding in Your State.” The authors discussed three metrics associated with fairness or equity of school funding: Funding level; funding distribution; and funding effort. Based on 2018-2019 funding data, the state of Maine scored an “A” or “Progressive” on funding level and funding effort. However, Maine scored an “F” or “Regressive” on funding distribution.
Recent historic state-level investments in overall funding for pre K-12 public education in Maine are encouraging and important. However, the 2013 Picus report, an exhaustive review of the EPS funding formula pointed to revenues from local property taxes as a driver of inequitable school funding distribution in Maine. The report stated, “the Maine school funding system overall has succeeded in designing a fiscally neutral distribution of revenues. However, the addition to the system of local property tax funding above the level required to fund the EPS introduced inequities into the system. The essential fiscal neutrality finding is that the Maine school funding system as planned would have achieved fiscal neutrality, but the differential abilities of districts with different levels of wealth (property and income) to raise local funds reduced the fiscal neutrality of the system somewhat.”
Simply put, reliance on local property tax revenue, not the EPS funding formula, is the reason why significantly more money is spent on students in wealthy communities than in less wealthy communities in Maine.
Unfortunately, several years after the release of the Picus report, inequities in pre K-12 school funding in Maine persist. As an example, according to Maine Department of Education data, during the 2020-21 school year, per pupil spending in the York school department was $20,945.88, while in the Lewiston school department per pupil spending was $15,802.02. According to U.S. Census Bureau data, in 2021 York’s median household income was $101,352 and the median value of owner-occupied housing units was $451,000. Whereas, in 2021 Lewiston’s median household income was $48,069 and median value of owner-occupied housing units was $157,500. These striking differences in wealth between the two communities contribute to the fact that more than $5,000 more was spent on a student attending public school in York than in Lewiston during the 2020-21 school year, which I argue is inequitable and unacceptable.
Importantly, some state-level policy makers in Maine are currently making efforts to introduce legislation aimed at more equitable school funding. On April 12, Sen. Joseph Baldacci, D-Bangor, will present LD 889 “An Act to Better Support the Educational Attainment of Low and Moderate-income Communities by Providing Additional Funding to Certain School Administrative Units.”
If enacted, this legislation would secure an additional $25 million appropriation to be added annually to the normal 55 percent school aid subsidy for local school districts. This additional appropriation would be distributed as Education Opportunity Grants and would be directed, guided by rules developed by the commissioner of education and approved by the governor, to go solely to school districts in the state where the average personal income is below the state average and awarded to specific programs in those school districts whose objective is to raise the educational standards generally of all student in the public schools in each said school district.
These types of legislative steps in Maine, along with successes in other states, are encouraging and deserve the attention and support of pre K-12 school stakeholders in Maine who are committed to equitable funding and opportunities for all children.