Two Circumstances: Legislature's Education Agenda

Maine House Chamber - Creative Commons photo by Flickr user J Stephen Conn

Two overarching circumstances will shadow all education policy discussions in this new Legislature.

Insufficient Funding

First is the state’s chronic inability to meet its mandate to fund 55% of the cost of education.

Ambitious from citizen-inception and, within a national recession, effectively a structural impossibility,  this commitment is now beyond the reach of any debate.

Before revenues plummeted, the state generally claimed to be on track to reach 55%, first by re-grading the approach slope and then, additionally, by tinkering with the denominator, circumscribing the “cost of education” itself in ways that sometimes, as with the consolidation law, seemed baldly self-serving.

By 2008, the state, by its own terms, got within $100 million of funding 55% of what it calculates to be the cost of an “adequate” education.  But, for the current year of FY2011, falling revenues have caused the Legislature to reduce support to schools by roughly $100 million.  The resulting $200 million structural gap is not projected to improve in most imaginable futures.

Mandate Fatigue

The second circumstance is that three years of gormily-implemented consolidation mandates have left a bone-deep fatigue for anything that could be framed as a top-down, Augusta-initiated power play in educational policy, no matter how perfectly intended.

Opposition to consolidation, significantly, was an issue that ripped indiscriminately across party lines.  But, surely, the new Democratic minority understands the ways in which the state’s overreaching initiative reverberated against them from the voters’ anti-incumbent mood last November.

Acknowledging these twin circumstances, it seems unlikely that the Legislature has the collective belly-fire to burden Maine’s schools with substantive requirements to add to the scope of education.  

Popular as they might have been in more progressive times, bills titled An Act To Include the Study of Franco-American History in the System of Learning Results, An Act To Require Every School Administrative Unit To Have a Food Service Director,  and even An Act To Teach Gun Safety to Children will face some tough swimming in this session.

Consolidation

For this session, Legislators have submitted 26 requests for bills to liberalize the consolidation law and not a single one to strengthen it. At this point, the law has accomplished all it will and so its disposition is of little consequence.  The harsher hard-lines of evaporating funding will continue to drive administrative reorganization and school closings much more effectively than the unpopular scattershot directive ever did.

Funding Formula and Distribution of Subsidy

Continuing from the last session, this is an issue that is important to many on the Education Committee whose geographic center has shifted a notch  east-north-east since the election. 

Like many education issues, funding equity can’t be translated readily into any of the usual partisan shorthands.  The strongest advocates for a more progressive distribution of subsidy are likely to be Republicans from the poorer rural areas.  Those whose districts stand to lose from zero-sum redistribution of state aid are the more liberal representatives from the more affluent southern districts. 

Judging from the previous session, this Education Committee should be genially capable of finding the right compromise for the circumstances.  Moreover, the whole topic is substantially diffused by the fact that the state’s inability to provide adequate funding means the debate will be largely over what each legislator’s district, in principle, ought to be getting in subsidy, rather than what it will actually be getting.

The most likely change to emerge could be a narrowing of the present adjustments of a district’s subsidy by a factor of its regional labor market.  This would benefit schools with low teacher salaries at the expense of districts where teachers are paid more. The argument will hinge upon whether the current depressed salaries stem from, as Representative McFadden calls it, “a chicken and egg” relationship between subsidy adjustment and labor market.

There will also be discussion of the subsidy distribution formula’s flaws in relating community wealth as a function of property value as opposed to income.. But these discussions are perennial and not happily resolvable in a state whose services  depend significantly on nonresident property tax payers.

Teacher Performance Pay and “Tenure”

Although the impetus has changed in the interim since the state's failed application for federal Race to the Top funding, this remains as unfinished business from the last session. 

The details of how to link teacher pay (and not merely teacher evaluations)  to student testing will remain unresolved until there is not only a much broader range of standardized assessment than presently exists but also an agreement that teaching to such tests is in itself a desirable goal. This is thorny, complicated territory and not something that will be resolved in this legislature.

In comparison, there is also a swell of interest in extending the statutory probationary period for teachers - the time during which new teachers can be arbitrarily dismissed without any administrative due process -- from the present two-year interval to three. 

In comparison to the intractability of merit pay, this will attract many legislators for its simplicity.  In the present union-unfriendly climate, few will hold that the career disincentive of prolonging a teachers’ professional insecurity outweighs the extra year’s advantage to a school district to dismiss, at will, a teacher who proves mediocre.

Within the context of merit pay getting mired, expect this latter initiative to have legs.

Charters and Innovative Schools

This is where the real debate will be this session. A first analysis might suggest that the stars are at last aligned for proponents of charter schools in Maine.  Charters are the darlings of not only the conservative national organizations such as the Heritage Foundation and the Heartland Institute but also President Obama’s own Secretary of Education.  Flogged seemingly by everyone from Wall Street capitalists to Bill Gates, Bill Cosby, Oprah, and the producer of Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth, charters in concept would seem widely irresistible even here in Maine.

On one hand, Maine legislators will find arguments enticing to allow Maine more local educational options.  Any advocate who employs the term  “innovation” in relation to education will find sympathetic ears. “Choice” might as well be “apple pie.”

But, on the other hand, to prevail in this legislature, charters will have difficulty overcoming the same two original overarching impediments:

1) Charters would require public money at a time when there isn’t enough to support even existing schools.  In this zero-sum system, charters can be launched only at the expense of existing local schools which are already being dangerously knocked back on their heels by curtailed resources.

2) Maine has just suffered through three years of bruising arguments where the state has consistently hammered home the message that Maine already has more schools, school organizations, and local inefficiency than it can prudently afford.  For the state suddenly to make a U-turn and saddle local property tax payers with an additional burden of independent schools of diverse special interests will promote revolt in most Maine towns.

In the end, the only advocates for a parallel system of privately-operated publicly-funded schools will be those whose agenda is to starve the project of common universal public education into collapse and total dysfunction.