I am incredibly proud of what we were able to accomplish this year with the biennial budget. As with any budget, there’s plenty to love and plenty to hate within it, but the end result is a record-breaking investment of $162 million in education, paired with meaningful reforms that will prioritize the classroom and pay dividends for decades to come.
And the best part of all is that we were able to do this within existing resources, without the job-killing surtax and without levying any additional taxes.
Last fall, voters for the second time in recent history cast a vote to require the state pay for a larger share of K-12 education with the passage of Question 2. As a former schoolteacher myself, I wholeheartedly support the concept of fully funding our schools. An investment in our children is an investment in our future.
But the punishing surtax included in Question 2 to pay for the additional funding was misguided and has already pushed small businesses and professionals out of the state at a time when we should be doing everything we can to attract more people to live, work, and pay taxes in Maine.
Thankfully, we found a way to surpass the 55 percent state funding requirement for education within existing resources, so at the end of the day, the surtax wasn’t necessary.
To help alleviate pressure on property taxpayers, we included a requirement that half of all new education funding must go to municipalities to help ease property tax burdens.
We also reworked the Essential Programs and Services formula that is used to allocate education funds to send more money to districts with a high rate of free or reduced lunch receivers and to districts that serve large numbers of special needs students.
These changes will have a significant impact on many rural communities, such as Boothbay and Boothbay Harbor, which would have received no additional funding under Question 2, but will now receive an additional $94,968, with $47,484 to go back to the municipality.
Nobleboro is another community that would have received no additional funding under Question 2, but will now receive an additional $17,315 due to the reforms enacted with this budget, with $8,658 returning to the municipality.
But simply making a larger investment isn’t enough. We must also spend tax dollars wisely, which is why we also included a number of reforms to streamline, find efficiencies, and prioritize our students over all else.
Maine’s student population has long been declining, with a net loss of 10,000 students over the last six years, yet in that same time, administrative costs have increased by 14 percent.
Looking to the future needs of our students, our budget begins to right-size administrative costs to better target funds directly into the classroom by facilitating interlocal agreements to allow districts to collaborate, save on administrative costs, and provide better services for students. We have reduced state funding for administrative costs from $235 per student to $135 per student and are requiring school districts to shift more money toward actual classroom instruction.
For every dollar the state spends on education, only 59 cents is currently spent on instruction-related costs, compared to 66 cents in New Hampshire and 67 cents in Massachusetts. We have now set a benchmark for 70 cents on every dollar to go toward classrooms. We have also adjusted the student-teacher ratios to support smaller class sizes in the lower grades, where it has been proven that students benefit most from smaller class sizes.
The budget also takes steps to better prepare our students to take the next step upon high school graduation by expanding access to career and technical education programs to middle school students beginning in grade six and providing funding for high school students to enroll in early college programs through the University of Maine System and the Maine Community College System.
These are only a few of the significant education reforms included in the budget. While this budget is far from perfect, it makes strides toward prioritizing our students, it funds education beyond the 55 percent requirement, and it does so without harming our economy.
While the process undoubtedly should have gone smoother, I am proud to have stood with my Senate colleagues to support it 12 times.
If you would like to contact me about a legislative issue, please call 287-1505 or email me at email@example.com.
(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.)