Gov. Paul LePage will hold a news conference on education funding Tuesday morning, followed closely by a second event that has been organized by the Maine Education Association and the Stand Up for Students coalition.
LePage previewed his argument this morning during a radio interview on WVOM, though his comments were basically a review for anyone who has been listening to the governor speak about what he thinks is wrong with public education in Maine. His primary goal is to reduce the number of superintendents for Maine’s roughly 175,000 students from 147 to a dozen.
“We’re very top-heavy and we need to shrink the number of superintendents,” said LePage. “Maine probably needs about a dozen superintendents. One superintendent per county would be too much in Maine.”
LePage has put a plan in motion to consolidate school administration structures and cut down on the number of superintendents but it requires buy-in from local school boards — if his plan makes it through the Legislature.
He has proposed that the state stop paying anything for school administrators on one hand and disburse competitive grants on the other hand for schools to use for costs associated with consolidation. Earlier this month, his administration awarded seven grants totaling $2.7 million and LePage is asking for another $11 million over the next two years to award more.
But there is hard pushback against LePage on that idea as well as the funding levels he has proposed for Maine schools. LePage said today that he has increased funding for public education in every year of his tenure. While that’s true, most of the increase is due to the Legislature adding tens of millions of dollars of education money to LePage’s budget proposals, which LePage then vetoed for a variety of reasons. LePage has proposed modest increases that education professionals say have failed to keep up with the increasing cost of public education.
In addition, LePage has pushed some education costs, such as teacher retirement premiums, to the local level — meaning they are now underwritten primarily with property taxes — and his plan to eliminate state funding for administrators would add to that. School subsidies have also suffered because under LePage, the state has diverted or diluted money from the general purpose aid funding formula to create charter schools, for example. LePage argues that public charter schools should be funded like any other school but the fact is, doing so spreads the same or very similar pool of money around to more schools.
So while LePage can correctly assert that, in raw dollars, he has increased state aid to education, individual school districts counter with the fact that they are receiving a smaller portion of the state education aid pie.
There are divisions in the Legislature over school funding. Democrats, for the most part, are interested in preserving Question 2 from the November 2016 ballot, which starting next year will route approximately $150 million a year to classroom instruction by creating a new 3 percent surtax on income above $200,000 a year. Republican leaders have recently come out firmly against Question 2, though some, including Senate President Mike Thibodeau, R-Winterport, have said they want to increase school funding out of the General Fund while scrapping Question 2.
LePage’s news conference today, which is scheduled for 10:30 a.m. at the State House, appears to be the beginning of an executive branch policy messaging blitz as the Legislature creeps closer to decisions on his biennial state budget proposal. The governor said he will hold news conferences on Thursday and again next week on taxes and energy policy.
“Those are the three things that are preventing Maine from becoming a prosperous state,” he said.
Gov. Paul LePage