By Sen. Dana Dow
Lost in the ongoing debate about public school funding is this unfortunate fact: the deck is stacked against rural Maine schools, and has been for a long time.
Teachers in municipalities with lower populations earn significantly less than their counterparts in communities such as Portland and Lewiston. The average teacher salary in Southport, for example, is $21,796, while the average in Portland is $68,011.
The result of this long-standing disparity is the continual migration of quality teachers from low-paying districts into high-paying ones. To use a sports analogy, rural school districts act as a farm system for the bigger ones, at the expense of our students in lower-populated areas of Maine.
In Regional School Unit 40, for example, nearly half of all teachers are in their three-year probationary period because there is a constant turnover as educators leave for greener pastures.
Understandably, Mainers are inclined to support more funding for schools, believing that will solve the problem. Last November, voters approved a ballot initiative to impose a 3 percent surcharge on households earning more than $200,000 annually in order to pay for more school funding.
We already have evidence that this surcharge is harming Maine’s economy, in particular our small businesses that create jobs, and there’s little reason to believe it will help the plight of our rural schools. The distribution of the money collected from the new tax is heavily weighted in favor of larger school districts. The 50 highest school district receivers will see a combined $102 million, while the rest of the state would see approximately $28 million.
Remarkably, more than 100 Maine school districts, mostly rural ones like Southport, will receive no additional funding at all.
If we are looking for a great equalizer in our school funding woes, the new surcharge is certainly not the answer, nor is haphazardly throwing more money at the problem.
I believe we need to look at some of the systemic problems with our education funding.
One of them is our union contracts with Maine school districts. Under the current system, the Maine Education Association negotiates contracts with individual school districts.
Under a bill proposed by Rep. Matt Pouliot, R-Augusta, school districts would still make their own hires, but the state of Maine would pay their salaries based on a statewide contract negotiated with the Maine Education Association. L.D. 864 calls for “a uniform compensation system that is based upon performance results that are competitive and fair throughout the state.”
Under the current system, teacher salaries are primarily paid for by local property taxes. If this bill were to become law, that cost would be shifted to the state. But it’s important to note that local communities would still have the option of paying their teachers more than the state-negotiated rate.
I believe that passage of this legislation would go a long way toward eliminating the “haves versus the have-nots” system that is currently in place. If teachers in rural districts are paid a competitive wage, they would be more inclined to stay where they are, which would benefit everyone.
(Sen. Dana Dow, R-Waldoboro, represents all of Lincoln County except Dresden, plus Washington and Windsor. He is the Senate chair of the Taxation Committee and also sits on the Insurance and Financial Services Committee.)