January 10, 2013

MAINE COMPASS: Curtailment highlights state's need to set new priorities on spending

Rep. Matthew Pouliot

The curtailment order issued by Gov. Paul LePage that cuts state spending by $35.5 million over the next seven months in order to balance the budget has been in the news a lot lately.

At the forefront of this story is the more than $12 million worth of cuts to General Purpose Aid, which the state pays to school districts.

Unfortunately, no one is talking about how we came to this point and the lessons we have learned along the way. These lessons can help us find a solution that ensures our schools get the money they need and that children get the most out of every dollar we spend on their education.

In 2004, voters passed a citizens' initiative to require that the state pay 55 percent of local school budgets. The state, however, has yet to fulfill that requirement.

In fact, in fiscal years 2008-2010, curtailment orders cut school funding by $85 million.

From 2008 to 2011, we saw a steady decline in overall state education funding, from $978 million to $872 million. The last budget, however, increased school funding by about $60 million and brought us closer to the 55 percent funding requirement than we have been in four years.

The recent curtailment order is a setback for Maine schools.

Even with curtailment, however, our schools are seeing more money than they were two years ago. This is an important trend to continue and I hope that the recent curtailment is just a hiccup in that progress.

Where does all the money go? How can we find the money to fund our schools at the 55 percent requirement?

Education, when combined with the Department of Health and Human Services, Maine's public assistance agency, constitutes about 80 percent of the state's budget. While our schools have seen cuts, DHHS spending has increased by $1 billion over the past 10 years, and MaineCare enrollment has almost doubled in the same time.

These facts tell me that we must do a better job at setting priorities for state spending.

While it is a Maine value to take care of our most vulnerable -- the elderly, disabled and children -- we rank second in the nation for welfare spending. We have become too generous to too many people at the expense of our children's education.

At the same time, Maine employers have been hamstrung by a workforce that lacks the appropriate skills for their businesses.

My colleagues on the other side of the aisle have proposed an initiative to close the "skills gap" so that employers can find workers with the training needed to fill available jobs.

I think this is a fantastic idea and, as a member of the Education Committee, I look forward to supporting bills that help young people and displaced workers obtain the skills they need to embark on a rewarding career.

I am also a big fan of the new "bridge year" pilot program already in place in Hampden, where students may earn both a high school diploma and an associate's degree in a valuable trade in just five years. Also, charter schools and teacher feedback programs are helping the education system adapt to the changing needs of today's students and today's economy.

The money for new education initiatives must come from somewhere.

When we have to cut education funding in order to pay for more public assistance, we miss out on a tremendous opportunity to make a lasting investment in our youth and our economy. Education is the great equalizer in our society, where both poor and wealthy students are put on equal footing and are provided an opportunity to excel.

Maine is gifted with extraordinary teachers and hardworking families who enable our children to achieve that success. The recent news that Maine ranks among the highest in the nation for high school graduation rates is evidence of this.

Let's give teachers and families the tools and the public policy they need to take education to the next level and ensure that everyone who graduates from high school or college in Maine has a shot at a rewarding career.

It's time we prioritize our spending and get to work on more educational innovations that truly revolutionize what students get out of education. Our teachers can't do it alone. Our parents and school administrators can't do it alone.

We need bold decisions at the State House, and I am optimistic that the Legislature will be able to come together to implement the changes that are necessary to prioritize our spending and ensure that our children receive a first-rate education.

Rep. Matthew Pouliot, R-Augusta, is serving his first term in the Maine House of Representatives, where he has been appointed to the Education and Cultural Affairs Committee.

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