LEWISTON — The Maine Center for Economic Policy is criticizing spending on public kindergarten through grade 12 schools, saying that per-capita, per-pupil spending has declined by more than $700 since the 2008 recession.
It’s the most in New England and among the top in the country, the center said Thursday, citing an analysis by the national Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
“The message is clear that Maine is an outlier,” said Mark Sullivan, spokesman for the Maine Center for Economic Policy. “The fact that Maine is behind other states is a result of policy decisions that have been made.”
Only eight states have seen steeper declines in school spending than Maine’s 13.3 percent, according to the national analysis. Oklahoma had the largest decrease at 23.6 percent, according to the study. Other states with steeper declines than Maine are Alabama, Arizona, Idaho, Wisconsin, Kansas, North Carolina and Utah.
However, Maine Education Commissioner James Rier said the numbers might be misleading.
The national group’s numbers may be accurate, but it doesn’t specify where the money came from or who made the cuts.
The state is spending more per pupil, over $5,000 each, in 2014 and 2015. In 2008, that number was just under $5,000 per pupil. The state subsidy dipped to just over $4,500 at the start of the 2011-12 school year but has been climbing ever since, he said.
The difference, Rier said, is in other sources of education money, including local spending.
“Everyone would agree that there have been challenges since 2009,” Rier said. “As the economy changed, one would argue that locals found it more difficult to continue the spending levels that had been prior to that. I’m just making it clear that the state has gained.”
The national study calculated costs to take account of inflation, and it listed a variety of reasons that spending may have declined in many states, including rising costs, falling federal aid and feeble state revenues.
Sullivan said that such pressures must be weighed against the societal and economic cost of lessening education.
In New England, Connecticut led the rebound with an increase of $326 per student, followed by Rhode Island with $296 and Massachusetts with $277. New Hampshire had an increase of $83 and Vermont had a decrease of $7 since 2008.
“If you’re not investing in education, you’re not going to improve your economy in the long run,” Sullivan said. “We’re not assigning blame to anyone specifically. The study just looks at what the numbers are.”
The conservative Maine Heritage Policy Center insisted that the statistics’ release was timed to hurt.
“Basically, the goal here for the Maine Center for Economic Policy is to portray the administration as having dropped dramatically the budget on education,” said Matthew Gagnon, the Maine Heritage Policy Center’s CEO.
He dismissed the Maine Center for Economic Policy’s conclusions as “ridiculous.”
“Per-pupil spending has remained generally flat,” Gagnon said. “It decreased slightly over the years, but it’s not this crater hole like they’re talking about, and (the changes) are mostly because student enrollment has gone down.”