AUGUSTA — While recent remarks by Gov. Paul LePage have ignited a debate over how much Maine spends to educate its public school students, varying numbers from national sources all show that the state’s per-pupil expenditures are well above average.
Last month, LePage said Maine students were falling too far behind their peers from other states, that Maine was paying too much for this lackluster performance. At the same time, he noted that Maine is 40th in the country in terms of teacher pay.
Since his July 25 press conference — which was meant to outline his administration’s new education reform initiative — education groups have been criticizing the governor’s data and anecdotes.
This week, the Maine School Management Association launched a new feature on its website called the “Real Story About Maine Schools.” In its first posting, the MSMA disputes comments LePage made during a July 25 press conference regarding per-pupil expenditures in Maine. LePage cited data from the National Education Association to say that Maine spent $15,032 per student in fiscal year 2011 on public pre-kindergarten through 12th grade education. That number makes Maine eighth-highest in the country and one-third higher than the national average of $10,770. The Bangor Daily News used those same figures in an analysis of Maine’s faltering reading scores, which was published in April.
The MSMA said the National Education Association’s numbers are derived from flawed estimates and cited U.S. Census data that lists a lower number. The Census Bureau’s Public Education Finances report says that Maine’s average per-pupil costs in 2009-10, the latest data available, were $12,259, which ranks the state 14th in the country and below all other New England states. According to the census data, the national average was $10,615 per student.
Maine Department of Education spokesman David Connerty-Marin said putting an exact price tag on per-pupil expenditures, especially when it comes to comparing states, is tricky because different states include different elements in their totals. For example, some don’t include retirement system costs, capital expenditures and in some cases, costs such as athletics and transportation.
The Maine Department of Education, in calculating the state’s per-pupil costs, doesn’t include capital outlay, debt service and transportation expenditures, and doesn’t compare Maine with other states. Per-pupil state General Fund expenditures plus local appropriations totaled $9,630, according to the department’s website.
Connerty-Marin said another organization that ranks states on per-pupil expenditures is the National Center for Education Statistics, which ranks Maine 12th in the nation with a figure close to the Census Bureau’s numbers.
“There are a lot of reports out there,” said Connerty-Marin. “Determining these numbers is really hard to do, which is why it’s great to have national organizations that equalizes that. The governor could have used any report, but used the NEA’s.”
“While there are some differences, they all point to the same thing, which is that Maine falls well above the national average,” he said of the various numbers. “The real discussion that we should be having is not which high number is correct, but why Maine is so far above the national average and what we can do about it.”
One place where Maine is well below the national average is teacher salaries. In July, LePage paired the NEA’s numbers with average salaries for Maine teachers, which he said ranked 40th in the country. He cited Maryland, Massachusetts and New Jersey, spend as much or more than Maine does per pupil but maintains much higher teacher salaries.
“Three of the states I just mentioned spend more money than the state of Maine but their teacher pay is in the top 10,” said LePage. “We’re 40th.”
Paul Hambleton is the deputy executive director of the Maine Education Association, whose parent organization is the NEA. He said the NEA’s data is flawed and that he’s working with the national organization to have them correct their figures. But he too said the task of comparing apples to apples on per-pupil expenditures is elusive and said even the Census data is flawed for that reason.
“They’re working off incorrect information and estimates,” said Hambleton. “I don’t know why, other than the NEA data is based on some estimates. Right now it looks like they were not getting updated information. They have not had an accurate update from the Maine Department of Education for five or six years. It appears that there has been a request. I don’t know if people weren’t responding.”
Connerty-Marin said Maine has not received any requests for per-pupil cost data from the National Education Association.
“We get lots of requests for data,” said Connerty-Marin. “We honor them as well as we’re able to, but it’s not always as fast as we’d like. There’s no reason to not provide that data to the NEA.”
Dale Douglass, executive director of the Maine School Management Association, said the organization launched the “Real Story About Maine Schools,” which can be found through the organization’s website at www.msmaweb.com, to make sure statements about Maine’s education system are accurate.
“The best way to advocate for public education is with the facts,” he said in a press release. “We need to understand where we are now and what it will take to get us to where we need to be for all of our students.”