If you just watched the final few frames of the action-drama that was this year’s biennial budget battle, you might have thought that the debate ultimately boiled down to taxes: Democrats wanted to raise them a lot, Senate Republicans a bit, while House Republicans and Gov. Paul LePage didn’t want them raised at all.

All of that was true, and while it was the final sticking point, that was less the core of the conflict than the reason it was so easily concluded late on July 3. In the end, Democrats just weren’t all that dedicated to raising taxes; they simply wanted to ensure more funding for education without having to allow any major policy changes in return. In that they were, unfortunately, largely successful. Though they didn’t get the $300 million in increased education funding that they wanted, they wound up with more than half of that.

Unfortunately, throwing more money at our schools simply won’t solve the problems with education in this state. We need to take a serious look at how that money is spent: where it goes, not just the total amount.

Right now, for example, Maine ranks near the top in spending per student, but near the bottom in teacher pay. In other words, we’re spending a lot of money not on making sure we have good teachers, but on administration and overhead. If there were any evidence whatsoever that produced results, it might be fine, but there isn’t. Maine tends to be in the middle of the pack in national rankings, and far behind the other New England states when it comes to results. So, we’re not just spending a lot of money on overhead, but we’re getting little to show for it.

Republicans didn’t err in fighting for education reforms to be included in the budget. Indeed, if anything, they erred in not pushing for more substantial reforms. They could have fought not just for a statewide teacher contract and reworking the funding formula, but for such reforms as expanding charter schools, school choice, merit pay, and more.

Maine has had a successful school choice program for over a century, implementing a voucher program in 1873 — the second-oldest in the nation. Unfortunately, right now it’s limited to special circumstances and to towns that don’t have schools of their own. That can be a real boon for those towns, as it helps attract new residents. However, there’s no reason why students whose parents don’t have the luxury of at least some degree of mobility should be trapped in an underachieving school just because of geography.

Studies have shown that the quality of education can have enormous impact on the quality of your life down the road. We ought to fully expand school choice statewide to allow better educational opportunities for all Maine students, removing the bureaucratic hurdles that impede students’ chances for success.

Another reform that Republicans could have pushed for in the budget is expanding charter schools in Maine. Maine finally passed a charter school law in 2011, becoming one of the last states in the country to allow them. In order to do so, Republicans had to overcome Democratic intransigence to education reform that was so entrenched that Maine had failed to qualify for President Barack Obama’s Race to the Top education grant program. However, the legislation as passed limited the number of schools allowed in the first 10 years to 10 statewide and granted far too much power to the state charter schools commission. We could allow other entities besides local school boards and the state commission to approve charter schools, provide funding for their facilities, and eliminate the statewide cap on charter schools. Doing all of that would increase choices for students and increase the quality of our public education overall.

Unfortunately for Maine, Eliot Cutler is right when he says that the state Democratic Party enjoys far too close a relationship with the teachers’ unions. That has made education reform a partisan football here when it isn’t in other states. If much of Gov. LePage’s tenure has been marked by sharp debates over taxes, spending, and welfare reform, the focus of the next election should be education reform.

Mainers deserve to have a real, substantive debate about education that revolves around something other than money. That will only happen, however, if we begin to elect legislators interested in actually fixing the problems with education in this state, rather than just fighting about them or throwing money at the schools.

Jim Fossel, a conservative activist from Gardiner, worked for Sen. Susan Collins. He can be contacted at: [email protected]

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