2014 marks the 10th anniversary of Mainers voting to require that the State fund 55 percent of the cost of public education. While we in Augusta have worked toward meeting that mandate, we have struggled most years to get to even 50 percent.
Due to other funding priorities – especially those related to health and human services – the Legislature simply cannot come up with the money.
As talk of growing Maine’s Medicaid program again swirls in the State House, I’m often asked for my assessment on the potential effects of expansion on education.
As our Department’s longtime Director of School Finance and Operations and now its Commissioner, I can tell you I am deeply concerned about the negative impact to Maine schools of further growing this already unsustainable program.
What is particularly troubling to me is the amount of uncertainty that surrounds expansion at the federal level, making it difficult for states and individual departments like ours within those states to truly understand and prepare for the impact.
However, if history is any guide, the effects would be significant.
Throughout most of the 1980s and 1990s, Maine devoted more than 30 percent (and as much as 34.44 percent) of its General Fund to supporting schools. Yet since Maine’s Medicaid program first expanded in 2001 that percentage has continually decreased, and is now at an all-time low of 29 percent and falling.
This year, Maine will spend more on health and human services – mostly Medicaid – than it will invest in educating its 185,000 school-aged children. While we must continue to deliver on our commitment to caring for our aging population and those with physical and intellectual disabilities, I believe funding locally implemented education should be the top spending priority of State government.
Were it not for past expansions of the Medicaid program, I believe the State would currently be funding its share of education at 55 percent.
Additionally, budget shortfalls from current Medicaid costs have led to curtailments almost annually of appropriated funds, including those for education. Last year alone, we had to cut $12.7 million from General Purpose Aid (GPA) and have already projected a need to cut another $9.5 million in GPA in 2014.
Because those were funds already committed to schools, these Medicaid deficits are preventing us from keeping our funding promises to Maine schools, leaving districts to raise the difference locally or make their own difficult cuts. I expect only more of these unplanned, mid-cycle cost-cutting measures by agencies like ours if the price for this program continues to climb.
Impacts of expansion would be felt beyond GPA. Many districts already experienced a dramatic reduction – from $35 million in 2010 to $6 million this year– in funding for reimbursement of Medicaid approved school-based services, and I expect that those reimbursement levels would become even more unpredictable.
Coordinated and effective state support is one of the five core priorities of our Education Evolving strategic plan. It is up to schools and districts to do the hard work of instructing, assessing and providing for the well-being of students; ensuring effective educators; and engaging parents and the public. It is up to the State to provide adequate and effective financial support.
I do not believe finally funding education at 55 percent would solve all of the challenges that lie ahead of us. But I have repeatedly heard from many in the field—including from groups like the MEA and MSMA, who continually press for Maine to meet that voter-mandated amount—it will certainly help.
If Medicaid expansion moves forward as it is currently proposed, Maine will likely never be able to afford its required State share. Although the State’s budget would continue to increase, I expect there would be further decreases in education funding allocations. This to me is not acceptable, and it’s why I have expressed my concern about the current proposals, regardless of what side of the aisle they are coming from.
Expansion cannot come at the expense of Maine students and their futures. Please know that I will continue to advocate for adequate funding for public education here in Augusta and, as importantly, for the effective use of those precious State dollars at the local level.