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Fire, Water and School Funding: In Support of Increased School Funding and Tax Fairness in Maine

An edited version of this piece appeared in the Bangor Daily News on 15 June 2017.

After living and teaching in Maine for over ten years, I am convinced that most Mainers are pretty smart, especially when it comes to practical matters.  Mainers are full of all kinds of pithy wisdom, and after hundreds of years of staying warm in the winter, Mainers definitely know that when you’re trying to start a fire, it really helps if the wood is dry.

Unfortunately, as the Legislature continues to debate the state budget, there appears to be a real disconnect between the numbers in their spreadsheets and the real-life world of Mainers and Maine students and what it takes for them to succeed.

In their budget negotiations, our lawmakers are trying to sell us wet wood.

Last fall, voters approved a referendum that had several key elements to it: funding education to the voter-mandated level; progressive taxation in which the wealthy pay a little more; and protecting property taxpayers from cost shifts and cuts in essential services. To ensure the future success of our students, we must fight to make certain that all of these elements are included in our future budgets.

At one level or another, all of these priorities are being undermined by negotiations in the State House.

As a citizen and classroom teacher, I see taxes as a way we pay for things that we all need and value, but we can’t pay for on our own. Our communities – and the voters at the ballot – have made public education one of these priorities for public investment.  It’s critical that the state fund our schools at the appropriate level, not shift costs to local property taxpayers. When the state fails to pay its fair share, costs get shifted onto working families and public servants through property taxes, a terribly regressive way to fund our schools.

But that’s only part of the equation.

We must also prioritize addressing the economic conditions that hold kids back. If the legislature cuts vital services that provide for the health and well-being of poor kids, Maine educators become social workers not teachers, just trying to keep our kids whole enough to make it through the day. This is not a recipe for student success.

Some lawmakers who want to repeal the referendum’s surcharge on high-income earners are looking to other places in the state budget to make cuts, including programs that help to provide health care, food and other assistance to children.

Maine policy in recent years has already led to terrible outcomes for too many children.

Being food insecure means you don’t have access to enough healthy food for an active, healthy life. That translates into hungry kids, who don’t know where their next meal will come from.

It’s hard to imagine, but in a time of steady economic recovery, 16 percent of Maine households are food insecure. More than one in five children is food insecure.

Here in Maine, one in five young kids is living in poverty, barely getting by without the basics.

We’re not doing enough for these kids, and we cannot afford to hurt them more.

I can tell you from firsthand experience, kids who come to school hungry, who have experienced homelessness, who don’t have a safe and secure place to call home face enormous challenges in the classroom.

The best teachers in the world aren’t miracle workers. Hungry, hurting kids struggle to learn at the same rate as their well-fed, wealthy peers, and no teacher is going to change that fact.

Children’s Health Watch in Boston, in research published in 2015, found that “food insecurity can damage children’s health and brain development years before they enter a classroom. By kindergarten, food-insecure children often are cognitively, emotionally and physically behind their food-secure peers.”

Based on Gov. Paul LePage’s budget proposal, 1,500 kids would lose support to meet basic needs from TANF, the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Program. TANF is a program that helps kids meet their basic needs.  Additionally, Head Start would lose about $1.2 million, money that helps to prepare students for academic success.

The governor would also eliminate General Assistance, a program of last resort that helps to ensure families in crisis have a safe place to stay and enough food.

He’d undermine the food assistance program (SNAP), taking even the right to have food away from some families.

And he’d take Medicaid away from about 20,000 parents and another 10,000 young adults age 19 and 20, who currently qualify for the health care program.

There is no question in my mind that Maine should fund education up to the 55 percent level demanded by voters in two separate referenda elections.

But it’s also common sense that those new education dollars not come at the expense of poor families and poor children.  Lawmakers proposing cuts to social safety net programs to fund education are the equivalent of neighbors offering you firewood that they threw in the lake.  They may think that they are helping, but they are not offering you anything of value. 

Some politicians in Augusta seem to be under the mistaken impression that voters aren’t very smart, that we’re easily fooled and didn’t really know what we were voting for last November.

I don’t believe any of those things are true.

Voters recognize that we have a problem with education funding in the state that hurts both students and people who pay property taxes.

They were presented with an alternative, and they liked it. They voted to ask wealthy Mainers to pay just a little bit more so that kids would have the best shot at success in the classroom without shifting new costs to towns and cities.  By defining the funding source, voters were clear that they didn’t want to take from the poor to fund education in order to give a tax break to the rich. 

It’s shameful that in a country blessed with so much that we have to argue about whether or not children have a basic right to have enough food to eat or that people, regardless of income, should have access to health care.

The wealthiest among us don’t need another tax break.  Their children aren’t going hungry. The system is already stacked in their favor.

Voters were clear. It’s only some politicians in Augusta who are confused about what’s best for our state.

Mainers are pretty smart. We want education to be funded, and we want our kids to be fed, happy and healthy. Our budget must include the full 55% funding for education financed by a 3% tax on incomes over $200,000 as approved by voters in 2016.  It is the dry wood that we need to light the fire that will lead to a brighter future for our students and our state.