Lawmakers haven’t spent what voters demanded for school support, and now is the time to insist on more.
NEWPORT — Passing Question 2 will help solve Maine’s education funding crisis, one perpetuated by those we’ve already asked to fix it.
In 2004, Maine voters overwhelmingly mandated that the state fund 55 percent of the cost of education. Subsequent Legislatures and governors have yet to comply with this law, funding progressively less every year. In 2015-16, the state paid only 47.5 percent.
We feel this failure as local property taxes continue to rise even as we are forced to make deeper cuts to our schools.
Voters in my school district, Regional School Unit 19, are among those who’ve seen the worst of this trend despite having the most power to reverse it. We’re represented by two of the most powerful men in Maine, House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, and Assistant Senate Majority Leader Andre Cushing.
Those titles carry an incredible amount of influence, which both have used to advance their priorities. But their legislative records and budgets passed on their watch indicate that those priorities have not involved ensuring the level of state education funding voters demanded.
Citizens in towns comprising RSU 19 should be outraged by this, especially considering our recurring budget crisis and the fact that the state’s contribution to RSU 19 schools has decreased by over $2 million in five years. Voters should contacttheir elected representatives to ask why they have continually failed, especially as they’ve run on a platform of keeping taxes low.
But voters need to know what answer is acceptable before asking, because Fredette and Cushing have specious arguments ready.
Indeed, a recent joint campaign mailer proclaims they “voted to allocate an additional $15 million for school funding … . We will also launch a blue ribbon commission to reform public education … .”
That sounds impressive.
But the $15 million was allocated only after schools found themselves facing another shortfall because of more projected state funding cuts. It was also long after school districts had further slashed education because of the proposed cuts, weakening our communities and state. This would be like your boss withholding your paycheck and then deciding to give you 5 percent of it after one of your children starved to death.
The 2012 Legislative Council spent $450,000 to hire Picus and Associates to analyze Maine’s education funding. Even by the most basic standards, Picus estimated, the state is underfunding education by $260 million annually. Now they want to create a blue ribbon commission to study the same thing? This would be like my 5-year-old commissioning a study to determine why there’s crayon on the wall.
Let’s assume I, as a farmer, tell my employees to harvest 55 percent of the tomatoes before a frost; I’ll take care of the rest myself. They harvest 47.5 percent and call it good. After I complain, they pick 5 percent of the remaining tomatoes, come back expecting praise and suggest spending money to study why my business is suffering.
Our elected officials explain that it’s complicated. There are lots of programs to fund.
Maybe my farmhands noticed the grass needed mowing, a fence needed repair and the tractor had a flat tire. They picked 47.5 percent of the tomatoes, mowed 25 percent of the grass, repaired the fence and patched the tire.
By some standards, that’s pretty good. But I, as the employer, specifically directed them to focus their energy on the tomatoes. If all the tomatoes get picked, then and only then can we focus on other problems. School funding is like that.
There are actually very few spending policies Maine voters have directly mandated. But those we have, by definition, are our highest, collective priorities. In other words, they are not on the same level as other policies. Nor should they be treated as such. If you don’t understand the distinction between levels of obligation, try paying only 47.5 percent of your mortgage this month. After all, you likely have a long list of other priorities.
Mainers value education because we understand that the future of our communities depends upon our children’s ability to become diverse, productive, happy adults, ready to face a rapidly changing world. We sent this message to our elected officials and created a law to dictate our priorities to them. We have a procedure to deal with those who haven’t done what we’ve asked.
Meanwhile, please vote “yes” on Question 2 – Stand Up for Students (something elected officials should have been doing since at least 2004). Passing Question 2 provides $157 million for K-12 education and requires the money directly benefit classroom instruction and student learning.