Funding for education is vital now more than ever
By Joseph Hennessey
Though I used the term frequently throughout my year of service and public platform as Maine’s 2019 teacher of the year, “essential public service” has taken on different meaning since the COVID-19 pandemic has taken root in the United States. As the social fabric has been stretched, it has become clearer where the gaps in the fabric exist, and where essential workers of all persuasions are striving to fill them. In a time of uncertainty and projected budget shortfalls, it is tempting to question the additive value and fiscal cost of our public services; public education is not exempt from that scrutiny.
In anticipation of calls for new efficiencies or reductions in services offered through education centers at all levels, I find it rather timely that Educate Maine has released a new report, “How is Public Education Funded in Maine?” Through comprehensive research, data analysis and policy recommendations, the report seeks to dispel misconceptions about how the public education system is funded in the state, to explain how those funds are allocated to early childhood programs, K-12 schools, centers of higher education and adult education programs and to consider those current realities in order to plan for a robust future.
As a teacher in central Maine, several elements from the report stood out as especially resonant. First, despite the resolution first passed in 2004 that the state government ought to provide 55 percent of total funding for public schools, it has yet to meet that threshold in the intervening 15 years. Second, per pupil costs for K-12 students have risen 24 percent since 2004 (when adjusted for inflation) without a comparable increase in funding. Third, state funding for full-time college students has fallen 20 percent since 2000 (when adjusted for inflation). Fourth, adult education programs constitute only 5 percent of total expenditures. And fifth, the majority of 4-year-old children in Maine are not enrolled in any form of preschool or prekindergarten program.
When the above is coupled with the reality that per pupil funding in Maine is the lowest by dollar amount in New England, one could find the report sobering. Yet, initiatives such as these are meant to help us make more informed decisions moving forward. As a citizen, I see the above as opportunities for further development of human capital; as a professional, I see the above as opportunities to reaffirm our support for all schools. Without question, Maine’s public education system has a proud tradition dating back to statehood itself, and the communities in which I and my colleagues serve as teachers remain committed to their students.
The preschools, K-12 facilities, community colleges, universities and adult education centers of Maine are community pillars that provide more than academic learning — they are committed to the development of every person in our state and are working to become even more inclusive. Socio-emotional health curriculum, physical and health education, financial literacy, 21st-century learning skills, counseling services, outdoor enrichment programs and many other initiatives have been born out of this same spirit. And, while basic needs and economic and social realities vary from community to community and level to level, the public servants who operate within funding described in Educate Maine’s new report do so in the interest of collective progress.
The first quarter of this school year has been one full of changes in Guilford and elsewhere. My classroom has required new furniture for social distancing and routine cleaning and disinfection five times per day. Our hallway passing periods, lunches, recesses, athletic contests and other school functions have been heavily modified to ensure student and adult safety. All schools have developed and implemented in-person, hybrid and fully remote learning options to suit the circumstances, as well as the digital divide. Yet, in spite of it all, my colleagues have risen to the occasion just as they have in times past.
Public education remains an essential public service in times of crisis, and like any element of infrastructure, it needs our continued support. Educate Maine’s report makes clear the factors involved in our collective investment up to this point, and it makes recommendations for the future, which all readers can consider for themselves. For my part, I believe that education is the path to self-betterment and community betterment, and that educational attainment in all its forms is a public good. Our investment in intellect via education has unlimited additive value and is central to the advancement of our state and country. The COVID era is temporary; let us plan for our future accordingly.
Hennessey teaches English at Piscataquis Community High School in Guilford. He was the 2019 Maine Teacher of the Year.