AUGUSTA — The education finance reform commission should consider increasing state funding for school districts with large numbers of disadvantaged students and getting money faster to schools that add pre-kindergarten programs, former Education Commissioner Jim Rier told the panel Monday.

Those were among the half-dozen ideas Rier suggested as focus areas for the commission, which was created earlier this year and launched in controversy when its first meeting was held behind closed doors in violation of the state’s open meeting law. The commission agreed to pay a fine over that meeting.

The commission, which is charged with both reforming the state funding model and improving student performance, has heard from several experts at recent meetings. It is now working to narrow its discussion to come up with specific policy recommendations in the next two months, so it can provide a report in the next legislative session.

Monday’s meeting was largely a presentation about how New York state has separate, elected education boards that run multiple services – from payroll to special education – for multiple districts.

The commission is considering whether to suggest such a system for Maine. Other ideas for focus areas were setting aside funds for unexpected spikes in special education costs, working to eliminate the need for remedial college courses for high school graduates, and simplifying the state’s education formula.

How to pay for education is an ongoing debate. In 2004, voters agreed that the state should pay for 55 percent of the cost of K-12 education, but the state has never reached that goal. It peaked in 2009, when the state paid for 53 percent of costs. Currently, the state’s contribution is at 47 percent, which is about $95 million short of reaching the 55 percent mark.


On Election Day, voters will weigh in on a new way to help pay for education: a ballot measure that would add a 3 percent tax on personal income over $200,000 a year to supplement the state’s contribution up to the 55 percent mark.

The commission has not made a point of crunching the numbers on its ideas, although at one point Monday, Senate Minority Leader Justin Alfond, D-Portland, a member of the panel, asked Rier about the price of his suggestions.

“Do you have a rough number of what these recommendations would cost?” Alfond asked. “No,” Rier said.

Deputy Education Commissioner William Beardsley, also a member of the panel, said he thought the commissioners were in general agreement on the policy goals of attracting and retaining top teachers, equalizing and increasing teacher salaries, recognizing strong leadership, and simplifying paperwork for teachers.

For Beardsley, a statewide or regionalized teacher contract would help achieve these goals, or having districts share back-end duties such as payroll to free up local administrators.

He said one thing that should be examined is improving the way the state funding formula responds to economically disadvantaged students. “It needs to be ratcheted up,” he said.


Rier suggested that the state’s current rate of reimbursement stay the same for districts that have up to 40 percent disadvantaged students. But a slightly higher rate would apply to districts with between 40 percent and 60 percent disadvantaged, and a top reimbursement rate would apply to districts with more than 60 percent disadvantaged students.

Forty-six percent of the state’s 181,600 students qualify for free and reduced lunch, the method used to identify disadvantaged students.

The extra funding, Rier said, would be earmarked for after-school programs or summer school programs, for example. He said 80 of Maine’s 242 school districts have more than 60 percent of students qualifying for free and reduced lunch.

On pre-K, he said the state needs to provide money upfront for schools wanting to add such programs. Currently, schools have to use local money to launch the program for the first year, then get reimbursed from the state in year two or three – and that up-front cost is enough to discourage many districts from adding programs, he said.

The governor’s education adviser, who is not on the commission, sounded a note of warning at the meeting.

“I think it would be a mistake of this committee if it didn’t consider opportunities for cost savings,” Aaron Chadbourne said, adding that “a lot of people I hear from” think education costs are already too high.

The commission will meet next on Nov. 28.


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