More money for Maine schools won’t fix a broken system

Since the passage of Question 2 on last November’s ballot, the debate over it has centered around the question of taxes.

Does Maine want to have, depending on how you count it, the highest or second highest income tax rate in the country? Is that what Maine people voted for, or were they just trying to vote for some vague concept of “better schools?” Just how bad will the flight of wealth from Maine to other states be? How many people will decide to never move here because of the new tax rate? What will be the impact on jobs?

And can anyone honestly claim “the will of the people” when the vote tally on the referendum question was so close?

Talk of a deal in the Legislature to mitigate the damage of Question 2 has circulated around this tax question. The conventional wisdom around Augusta is that some kind of deal to eliminate the 3 percent surcharge on incomes over $200,000 is likely, but that Republicans will have to trade significant additions to state funding of schools to get it. Republicans, who are terrified of what the higher tax will do to the economic progress made in the last six years, seem willing to take the deal.

Sadly, this is all going according to plan. Those who designed Question 2 knew that by including multiple provisions — higher taxes and more spending on education — they were increasing the likelihood of getting either one or both of those ideas permanently enshrined in law. Exhausted from fighting one of these (taxes), the conservatives in the Legislature were likely to let the other (gargantuan increases in funding) go without a fight.

The problem is that both the tax increase and the additional funding for education are mistakes. Not just mistakes, but horribly bad policy.

The insanity of the tax increase is readily apparent, which is why it is likely to be mitigated or eliminated, thankfully. Having an income tax rate that high while having your state directly adjacent to New Hampshire, which has no income tax, and while tens of thousands of your citizens spend significant time in Florida, which also has no income tax, is among the most idiotic proposals ever made in Maine.

But then, so is the additional funding for education.

Kerri Wyman, assistant principal at the new Central Community Elementary School, talks to students about where to find their classroom on the first day of school. Gabor Degre | BDN

Oh yes, I know, I know. We like schools. We like kids. We like teachers. We want better schools, smarter kids and better teachers. So how could someone like me oppose spending more tax money on that goal? If I suggest that it is a bad idea to spend that extra money, don’t I hate children?

Well, no, I happen to have three of them and they will all be public school children. I have a vested interest in a better education for my kids, and still I say to you that the extra funding from Question 2 — or whatever deal the Legislature cuts — won’t do anything to make education in this state better.

State education funding has steadily increased virtually every year, in perpetuity, across Republican and Democratic administrations and Legislatures, going up by hundreds of millions of dollars in just the last 10 years. We spent more in virtually every category.

Likewise, local education spending has spiked upward as well, in a very similar trend line to state funding. Some would argue — dubiously in my opinion — that it has actually increased at a sharper rate because the state just doesn’t give them enough money.

So significant increases in both state and local funding.

Meanwhile, student enrollment is cratering. In that same 10-year window, Maine has seen a decline of roughly 18,000 students.

So, if you are keeping track, we have 18,000 fewer students and yet we are spending hundreds of millions of dollars more on education. Since the early 2000s, Maine’s per-pupil spending has risen by roughly $4,000.

Has that made our education system any better? Is spending significantly more per pupil, statewide, resulting in a revolution of education quality? Are schools now significantly better than they were 10 years ago? Better than they were in the 1970s, when student enrollment was nearly 250,000 and we spent peanuts compared to today?

No? So why would hundreds of millions more dollars fix schools? If money correlated to educational attainment, Washington, D.C. would have among the best schools in the country, rather than the worst.

So my question to those constantly demanding more money for Maine schools is simple. How much is enough? At what point is there enough spent on a child in the public school system to ensure they receive a world-class education? When will they be happy?

They don’t have an answer, because there isn’t one. The system is broken. No amount of money will fix it. It is the system itself that has to be reformed.

Matthew Gagnon

About Matthew Gagnon

Matthew Gagnon, of Yarmouth, is the Chief Executive Officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. Prior to Maine Heritage, he served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C. Originally from Hampden, he has been involved with Maine politics for more than a decade.