State is no longer the majority partner in education policy

Another stick-brandishing editorial in today's Sunday Telegram, Merger law should be improved, not gutted, suggests that the aim of school consolidation could be extended through further reductions in state aid to education, as proposed by Portland Representative Lovejoy.

While not necessarily disagreeing with Representative Lovejoy's resolution, I see it slightly differently. Here is the comment I posted in response:

As a practical matter, Representative Lovejoy is probably on the right track. But the editorial appears to misunderstand the present relationship between local system administration and state subsidy.

Since 2005 when the state adopted the Essential Program and Services model for funding Maine's schools, school subsidy had been distributed as a function of the per-pupil costs that the state deems to be "adequate" for each cost center. Originally, these unit costs were based on analysis of "high-performing" and efficient school districts. And, ever since, the portion of state subsidy distributed towards the costs of system administration has been on the same basis irrespective of the differences in actual expenditures between - say -Scarborough and Washbiurn.

In 2007, facing a budget shortfall and the continuing unlikelihood that the state could reach its obligation of funding 55% percent of the cost of funding an "adequate" education, the Governor proposed reducing the unit costs of system administration by 50 percent - which conveniently reduced the state's obligation to education by $20 million. With no other clear route to achieving the state-side savings, the legislature agreed to this by enacting the 2007 school consolidation law, justifying the immediate reduction in state aid by projecting hypothetical future savings from efficiency.

For the state now in 2011 to decline to assume responsibility for any part of school administration costs is a predictable next move. But it should be recognized as just one more step for the state away from its original commitment toward rational equitable state aid to local education.

The 2005 'LD1' citizens' initiative established that the state should pay 55% of the cost for education. The state has never reached that goal and now, out of utter necessity, continues to step down from that mark. In 2011 the state is covering only 42% of what it defines as the cost of an adequate education.

Representative Lovejoy's proposal represents an acknowledgment that the state, unable to meet its own obligations, no longer is the majority party with the authority to make overriding decisions in local educational policy.

Changing EPS calculation a flawed strategy

I tried to post a response but am not sure if it will show up, so here it is in a nutshell:

The Essential Programs and Services formula calculates the amount of money due each school system via the General Purpose Aid subsidy. No matter how much or how little that amount is, once in the school board's (or, as a practical matter, the superintendent's) hands/budget, it can be spent however that entity wants.

Think of it this way: the state (Dad) calculates the allowance and the school system (kid) gets to spend the allowance however it wants, no matter what Dad thinks would be good. Kid wants a bike? Once Dad has handed over the allowance dollars (even with the caveat that some of it be saved, or spent on lunches or shoes), the kid gets to spend it on a bike.

Same with EPS: if the school system wants a full-time superintendent and is willing to cut teaching positions to do so, that's their prerogative. The state has no say once it has calculated (via EPS) how much it would prefer the school system spend on central office staff.

Cutting the amount in the EPS formula to $0 for central office administration has no legal effect. It may have one because the school board may have to defend whatever it spends on that line to the local taxpayers, but the state's influence is minimal.