Eye on Augusta: State Referendum Proposed for Next Year Would Tax Wealthy to Fund Schools
LePage calls state funding for schools “unconstitutional”
Thursday, October 22, 2015 11:16 AM
MEA Responds to LePage’s Comments on School Funding, Unions & Guns in School
At a town hall forum in Lewiston last week, the governor talked about teachers unions not supporting his online education initiatives. He also said the state would never fund education at 55 percent, and said that according to the state constitution, state funding to local schools is “unconstitutional.” He also said he supports allowing teachers and staff to carry guns in school as long as they have the “proper training” and added that it is “stupid to put a sign on the wall that says ‘gun-free zone’” because the sign serves as an invitation for mass shooters to come in. Below is a response to some of those comments from the president of the Maine Education Association, Lois Kilby-Chesley:
Re Online Education:
In spite of the Governor’s belief in education-by-screen as he mentioned in this Lewiston town hall, the efforts of the teachers who see students every day cannot be matched by any computer program. The Governor is so wrong if he thinks the solution to educating our students is through a screen. There are innumerable ways that educators interact with students that are missed by technology. The nuances of students’ facial expressions, the look of engagement in an activity, knowing when a student really needs someone to listen, are all things no computer program can replicate. Teaching and learning are all about being a human, being a citizen, being a lifelong learner. Teaching and learning are not all exclusively about technology. Technology is only one piece of the education puzzle.
The Governor flaunts that 55% funding of education never will become a reality. He clearly doesn’t believe that our students deserve equal opportunities no matter where the student lives and regardless of zip code. MEA believes that 55% is one part of the answer to giving EVERY student in Maine a chance to compete — based on achievement, motivation, and the chance to improve him/herself — not based on family income or community demographics. The Essential Programs and Services (EPS) model for funding education is meant to level the funding to schools, providing a more fair way get resources to schools than exclusively through property taxes collected by towns.
Re School Funding from the State:
Once again the Governor threatens that the Constitution isn’t being followed. He apparently believes that municipalities are responsible for all education costs. But, he either forgets, or doesn’t know, that laws require costs of education be paid by the state (including 55%). School funding by the state would only be unConstitutional if the document prohibited school funding, which it doesn’t. In fact, without state payments to schools how would the Governor propose to fund the charter schools he so loves to promote?
The idea of arming educators was discussed in the past and it was quite obvious the Legislature was not willing to risk school safety by having teachers and others carry firearms in our schools. If the Governor proposes educators should be trained to carry guns in classrooms, the MEA will work vehemently against him.
The Maine Education Association represents, and only exists, because our educator members in Maine believe that our organization works to improve schools for our students. We are much more than educator advocates, and continually work for social justice in our classrooms and for our communities.
Re the MEA:
There are many examples that discredit the Governor’s pessimistic view of “the teachers’ union.” We do many
things including, in just the last year or so, collecting items — including more than 1,000 pairs of socks — for Togus Veterans’ Hospital, partnering with WMTW on an anti-
bullying campaign, partnering with WGME and Good
Shepherd Food Bank in School Spirit Challenges in southern Maine, partnering with WABI to collect food for hungry families in north/central Maine, and for the last two years (and again upcoming this year) providing books for Maine students. This year, in partnership with a local Foundation, we will once again be providing every Maine first grader in every public school, a book to begin an at-home library.
In addition, educators in schools across the state take collections of items for those in need, dip into their own pockets to pay for shoes, coats, mittens and food for students, and have an ever-expanding list of ways they help our students and their families.
In addition the MEA Board of Directors and other members have collected materials for schools in need whenever necessary to help them get by very difficult times. (Hall School in Portland had a fire for instance a while back, and members contributed to help them and MEA bought gift cards.)
The Governor, as he is prone to doing, continues to attack public educators by attacking the MEA, as he did again in Lewiston. As I said earlier, the MEA only exists because of our members, so when the Governor attacks MEA he is attacking every one of our hard-working, conscientious teachers, educational support professionals, bus drivers, custodians, food service workers, school secretaries and other MEA members. He needs to learn that education matters, and educators matter, because we are the people who are with our students every day doing our best in spite of his actions that repeatedly demean and devalue our public schools, school employees and students.
A public education advocacy coalition has launched a citizen referendum petition to generate $110 million for schools by levying a 3-percent surcharge on the top 2 percent of income earners. The group Stand Up for Students says the new tax would translate to about $30 for every $1,000 earned over $200,000. The revenue would be used to directly fund classroom instruction, teachers, school nurses and other public school personnel. According to the initiative’s organizers, Regional School Unit 13 in the Rockland area would receive an extra $1.5 million if the referendum passes. The petition will need approximately 62,000 signatures in order to appear on the 2016 ballot.
The “tax the 2 percent” school funding initiative would move the state toward its voter-mandated requirement of covering 55 percent of the cost of education. The 55-percent mandate was passed in 2003, but the state has never fulfilled its obligation.
During the past six years, the state has cut funding for education and revenue sharing to towns in order to balance its own budget and pay for nearly $400 million in income tax cuts. As a result, many schools have cut programs and towns have been forced to make the choice between raising property taxes or cutting services.
Between 2008 and 2014, Maine’s per-pupil spending adjusted for inflation was reduced by 13.3 percent, which is the ninth highest drop in education spending in the country according to the Washington D.C.-based Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Last spring, the Legislature appropriated an additional $80 million in its two-year budget for education, but the state is still funding education at below 45 percent, according to the Maine Municipal Association.
However, the current formula considers property values as a proxy for a town’s ability to pay for schools and doesn’t factor in median household incomes. As a result, the state only covers about 15 percent of essential instruction costs for RSU 13 due to the region’s valuable coastal property. In spite of the lack of equity in the EPS formula, Rockland City Councilor Louise MacLellan-Ruf says the extra $1.5 million for the district would make a big difference.
“I support this initiative as our state has let down our
students and communities by not funding them as promised,” she wrote in an email. “This broken promise has
also eaten away at our City’s coffers. This broken promise forced Rockland and other municipalities to make drastic cuts to budgets in order to keep taxes in check and services available.”
RSU 13 School Board Chair Steve Roberts says he supports the intent of the proposal but is skeptical of the plan because the state has routinely ignored the will of the voters to fund education at 55 percent and never suffered any penalties. He said that it may require a constitutional amendment to force the state to meet its obligations.
LePage: The 55 percent law “will never happen”
Meanwhile, a Republican Party-backed referendum to abolish the state income tax could add even more complications if it qualifies for the 2016 ballot. The measure, which is supported by Gov. LePage, would eliminate $1.7 billion in revenue, or a third of total state revenues. The governor has said that the budget hole could partially be offset by cutting $250 million in “waste” from the education budget by forcing more rural schools to consolidate and putting more classes online.
At a town hall forum in Lewiston on October 13, the governor dismissed any notion that the state would ever honor its obligations to meet the 55-percent threshold:
“It will never happen in the state of Maine because it’s not possible. Every single year the person who has to pay the 55 percent has nothing to say about what makes up 55 percent.”
The governor went on to argue that the state shouldn’t have to fund local schools because it doesn’t have any say in how many teachers a district hires and what their salaries are. LePage’s comments on the 55-percent law are a complete 180 from the position he took while running for governor as the mayor of Waterville.
“The citizens of Maine voted for the state to fund 55 percent of GPA funding,” he told the Portland Press Herald in October 2010. “Therefore, the state has the responsibility to abide by the will of the people. To meet that responsibility the state needs to reprioritize spending and shrink the size and scope of state government.”
At the Lewiston forum last week, the governor went even further, arguing that the state is not even constitutionally obligated to provide any funding for education at all. He cited Article VIII of the Maine Constitution, which begins: “Legislature shall require towns to support public schools; duty of Legislature.”
“Do you know that it’s unconstitutional in the state of Maine for the state to pay one dollar towards education?” the governor asked the Lewiston audience. “But we’ve never changed the constitution. We’ve been doing it for decades, but it’s [clear] the constitution says the state will only ensure that local communities pay for educating their students at their costs. And I’m meeting with the Chief Justice on Friday to ask why does this continue to happen? And they say, ‘Well, we take the precedent and you’ve been doing it, so we would say you’ve got to continue doing it.’ So if that’s the case, then why are we asking a governor to take an oath to the United States Constitution and an oath to the Maine Constitution when the Constitution doesn’t mean what the Constitution says. It only means what the court says it says when they decide to discuss it in the courts. But that’s a fact.”
Education Committee member Rep. Brian Hubbell (D-Bar Harbor) called the governor’s argument “absurd.”
“The Governor misunderstands that the law requires the state to pay 55% of [“Essential Programs and Services”], which is the state’s calculation of the threshold cost necessary to provide each Maine student with the opportunity to meet Maine’s Learning Results, not 55% of whatever schools choose to spend.”
When asked to comment on the merits of the governor’s argument that state funding for education is unconstitutional, Attorney General Janet Mills was unequivocal: “Nothing in the Maine Constitution prevents the state legislature from funding public education.”