Posted Oct. 09, 2016, at 9:10 a.m.
AUGUSTA, Maine — The premise of Question 2 on the November ballot is that more money for public schools equals better outcomes for students, but recent history indicates the answer to Maine’s stagnant classroom performance is not so simple.
Since 2004, when Maine voters decreed that state government should fund 55 percent of the cost of K-12 public education, advocates have criticized the Legislature for its failure to do so. Those criticisms flourish whether the conversation is about budget cuts at school districts or education-driven property tax increases at the municipal level.
Now, as Mainers contemplate funneling another $157 million per year from a new income tax to pre K-12 schools, the debate rages on two fronts: Will the money help students and what will the new tax do to Maine’s economy?
That question can’t be answered by filling in a single dot on a score sheet. Maine-specific data reveal a simple truth: More money doesn’t mean better schools. Another simple truth: More money can pay for programs that have been proven to improve student outcomes.
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Spending vs. test scores
State spending on education has risen since the financial recession hit in 2008. According to data from the Maine Department of Education, total state spending on public education has gone up 27 percent since 2004, to about $2.26 billion for the 2014-2015 biennium. In that same time period, the number of students in Maine public schools decreased by about 23,000, to roughly 181,000.
While there is no question that state spending has swollen, educators argue that increases have not kept up with rising fixed costs such as salaries and insurance, translating to an increasingly austere picture for public schools and rising pressure on property taxes, which are public schools’ other major funding source.
Test scores have shown little improvement. Math and reading scores for fourth- and eighth-graders, as measured by National Assessment of Education Progress tests administered annually to samplings of students in those grades, have been stagnant since 2000 and have even dipped in recent years.
For 11th grade, the picture is similar. The Maine High School Assessment, which consists of the SAT, has shown modest improvement in statewide average reading and math scores between 2005 and 2014. Between 2006 and 2014, the percentage of students meeting or exceeding grade-level thresholds has risen nearly 10 percentage points to about 48.5 percent.
Per-pupil spending has also gone up. Another way to measure education spending is by looking at per-pupil averages. With the exception in slight declines in the four years following the onset of the 2008 recession, per-pupil spending in Maine, which is a function of increased spending and a decreasing number of students, has ticked upward for years. That number went from about $7,800 per pupil in 2004-2005 to nearly $11,000 in 2014-2015.
More money, better students?
Not really, according to correlation math. Amy Johnson, co-director of the university-based Maine Education Policy Research Institute (MEPRI), has crunched funding and test score data in a number of ways over the years. The short answer: There is a weak correlation between total per-student spending and high school test scores. She estimates that in 2013-2014, only about 5 percent of the difference in student achievement across Maine high schools could be explained by total spending per pupil.
The correlation was stronger when Johnson considered only “regular instruction,” which includes mostly teacher salaries and benefits and excludes other costs. Variations in spending on instruction in 2013-2014 contributed to about 20 percent of differences in test scores.
“You can find that for any given student achievement level, schools that are spending a lot and schools that are spending a little,” Johnson said. “Additional money is not a panacea.”
Numerous studies have shown that in general, socioeconomic factors such as the number of people within a given school district who are living in poverty or an area’s property valuations are most useful in predicting a school’s performance.
Maine has a recent example to consider. When the state introduced the Essential Programs and Services funding model in 2006 — which is how the state determines which programs to fund at public schools and which to leave to local taxpayers — the state increased school subsidies to public schools by $120 million. Adjusted for inflation, that’s in the range of the $157 million Question 2 would generate. Four years later, MEPRI produced a study of 2005 and 2007 data that found that the sudden influx of new funding produced “no statistical difference between SAT scores for the two years” in the study.
“The kind of things that do matter are the intellectual culture between the staff and students within a school,” Johnson said. “What matters is teachers setting high standards and expectations.”
Improve schools or cut taxes?
It will be up to local communities to decide. Question 2, which is supported by the Stand Up for Students coalition, is billed by supporters as a way to bring state funding to 55 percent of the total cost of education and ease pressure on local property taxes. That raises the question of whether Question 2 will lead to more spending or lower property taxes — or both. Another 2010 MEPRI study followed the money on a district-by-district basis. It found that local school boards routed about 45 percent of the new money to reducing taxes and 55 percent to increasing education budgets.
Republican Rep. Paul Stearns of Guilford, who is the former superintendent of schools in that area, does not support Question 2. Among his concerns is that it doesn’t provide enough guarantees that local communities will increase spending and not just shift large percentages of their school budgets to the state.
“[Stand up For Students] has made a good-faith effort, but this can be thrown off track in so many different ways,” Stearns said. “The Legislature and whatever [governor’s] administration is sitting at the time can certainly just change it. There are all kind of little equalizers that can take place. One of them is state government not following the law.”
There’s precedent for that, too: the 2004 law that says the state will pay 55 percent of education costs.
What works for taxpayers and students
John Kosinski of the Stand Up for Students campaign said improving schools and reducing property taxes are near-equal goals in the referendum push. Injecting more state money into the funding formula will decrease what is known as the “minimum mill expectation,” which is a number that defines what local districts have to spend on their schools in order to receive state funding.
“We would hope that those communities would do right by their students,” Kosinski said. “This campaign is about trying to improve educational outcomes, trying to provide more opportunities to more kids, trying to cut back on inequities that currently exist when we over-rely on property taxes to fund our schools. If we have great programs that are working and the research says they are working, why aren’t we continuing to fund them?”
Experts have already told Maine what to do. The Legislature spent some $450,000 on the 2013 “ Picus report,” which was commissioned to examine whether there are inequities in public school funding in Maine and how to fix them. The report recommended Maine increase funding for public schools by $260 million per year to pay for programs such as the following:
— More funding for early childhood education, including implementing pre-kindergarten programs in more Maine schools.
— More paid teacher workshop days.
— Reducing class sizes in grades K-4.
— Hiring more staff to mentor teachers and work with struggling students.
— Targeting additional funds at districts with high percentages of students who receive free or reduced-cost lunches.
Kosinski said funding for pre-kindergarten programs, which exist in some Maine districts but not in others, and career and technical education programs, which in some areas are at capacity and turning away students, would be priorities, as would after-school and summer programs that have popped up in Maine with grant funding and then fizzled when grants ran dry. He said the initiative would also reverse cuts made in recent austere years that educators knew would be harmful to students.
“Here in Brunswick, we’ve cut literacy specialists,” he said of his hometown. “We shouldn’t be cutting literacy specialists in kindergarten and grade 1. We know that’s not the best thing for outcomes for kids.”
The arguments against Question 2 are loud and strong from the likes of Gov. Paul LePage and the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, but Mainers have a history of supporting schools at their local town meetings and on voting day when they’re asked to approve bonds for higher education. A recent poll found more than 60 percent of Mainers support Question 2, which just 32 percent registering their opposition.
Mainers of all political stripes agree on the goals, but the path to reach them has been the subject of years of debate. Is injecting cash the answer? It’s debatable, for now, though there could soon be a new data set to help answer the question.