Thursday June 24, 2010 | 12:56 PM

It's become a hot topic among those calling on Maine to rein in public school spending, or at least get a better return on what is spent (PDF warning). It entered into the gubernatorial campaign as the candidates debated how they could realize more efficiencies in the operation of Maine's public schools.

If Maine were to rein in excessive government spending, the thinking went, the state couldn't continue to support a student-teacher ratio of nine to one, a ratio that many agreed was simply too low. That ratio meant Maine had the lowest in the United States.

In fact, the Maine School Management Association points out, that nine-to-one ratio was too low -- too low in the sense that it was wrong. MSMA estimates that, using the correct figures, the ratio is more like 11.3 to one, more in line with other rural states'.

The figure in question is a calculation by the National Center for Education Statistics that the agency released in October 2009, reflecting ratios during the 2007-08 school year. In a report that shows all states' student-teacher ratios, it turns out that NCES used an inflated number of teachers when calculating Maine's ratio. MSMA reports that 16,826 is the accurate number of full-time equivalent teachers during the 2007-08 year, not 21,183.

Jim Rier, school finance director for the Maine Department of Education, said staff members from the national center contacted Maine to ask about the ratio as they assembled data for a forthcoming report that will show 2008-09 ratios. The nine-to-one ratio was an anomaly, so Maine education officials provided the agency with the correct teacher number. The report still hasn't been corrected; Rier said he expects the forthcoming report to be more accurate.

While NCES' October 2009 report showed a nine-to-one ratio, the same agency's overall Maine profile lists an 11.9-to-one student-teacher ratio for 2007-08 -- a number most agree is too high for Maine. The profile shows 16,558 teachers, more than 250 fewer than what Rier and MSMA say is correct.

Maine's own data show 16,502 teachers for 2007-08. And an Education Week analysis for 2007-08 shows 16,349 teachers.

So, what's going on?

According to Rier, part of the discrepancies could have to do with the point in the school year at which the number of teachers is calculated. In addition, Rier said, the state Department of Education has had difficulty communicating the concept of the 11 private schools in Maine whose student bodies are at least 60 percent public (PDF warning) to the feds. Sometimes, those schools' teachers are counted as public, and other times, they're left out of the count.

Take a look at another discrepancy, as well. The NCES' state profile says Maine has 681 schools. The report from NCES listing Maine's nine-to-one student-teacher ratio says the state has 638.

We're told the forthcoming student-teacher ratio for Maine could be closer to the truth.

What's true? Much of that answer might lie in the answer to these questions: What's public, and what's private?

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