Lawmaker Wants Education Equity in Constitution

AUGUSTA – A proposal to add the concept of education equity to the state constitution will bring the document into line with current school funding practices, not turn the education establishment on its head, a state senator says.
The amendment’s sponsor, Sen. Susan Longley, D-Liberty, tried to convey that message Thursday as she fought off criticism that her proposal would usurp local control and open the flood gates to a rush of lawsuits.

Longley was one of a handful of people who showed up in the ice-covered state capital to testify on three school funding bills that were heard by the Education Committee. Most of those who testified worked in or lived near Augusta. The public will be allowed to present testimony during a work session on the bills scheduled for Jan. 27 at 1 p.m.

“The current education clause fails to fit the times,” Longley told the committee. Interpreted literally, the clause says only towns are responsible for paying for schools. In practice, the state and municipalities have provided funding for schools for nearly two centuries.

“I’m trying to ensure that our constitution reflects 168 years of practice of the state and towns working together,” Longley said of the aim of her bill, LD 1601.

Longley admitted Thursday that her aims had changed since she submitted her amendment to the Legislature last winter. Last year, she said she hoped the constitutional change would lessen the spending gap between rich and poor school districts. She sought to make education a “fundamental right” so that school districts could go to court to challenge the state’s funding mechanism. Such a case was filed by 78 poor school districts several years ago but was thrown out by the court in 1994 because the state constitution included no education guarantees.

Now, Longley said she seeks only to update the constitution’s language to reflect the state’s current school funding practice. The amendment would add that financial support should be “equitable and adequate.” The proposal is supported by the state’s education interest groups.

Longley said she would define equity to mean that the state and towns would do their best, within available resources, to ensure that students have similar educations no matter where they live. Adequacy would be determined by student performance on the Learning Results, recently-enacted statewide standards. If students in a school didn’t perform up to state expectations, the state could provide assistance, but it would be up to local school officials to determine how to improve performance.

Several education committee members questioned Longley’s choice of adjectives.

Rep. James Skoglund, D-St. George, wondered if the amendment would bar towns from spending more money on education if they wanted to because that would mean their students would have more educational opportunities than those in communities who spend less.

Rep. Shirley Richard, D-Madison, co-chair of the Education Committee, worried that schools would say the state did not give them enough money for their students to perform “adequately” on statewide tests.

Both lawmakers suggested school districts might look to the courts for a definition of equity and adequacy. Longley, an attorney, said her research has shown that such lawsuits would fail because the courts, to date, have not found Maine’s education system – or its funding mechanism – lacking in equity or adequacy.

Why then, wondered Belfast resident Tom Crandall, should the constitution be amended at all? “This current language hasn’t deterred efforts to improve education in 168 years, so why do we need to change the constitution?” he queried of lawmakers.

He also opposed the amendment because it could lead to a return of the uniform property tax rejected by voters 20 years ago.

A representative of the Maine Municipal Association said the group’s staff supported removing constitutional language making municipalities solely responsible for financial support of public schools. However, Kate Dufour said the association’s staff was also concerned that “equity” and “adequacy” would ultimately be defined by lawyers and judges and not legislators. The MMA legislative policy committee has not yet met to discuss the amendment.

Sen. Judy Paradis, D-Frenchville, also sponsored a constitutional amendment to ensure educational equity throughout the state. She withdrew her bill Thursday and said she would work with Longley to include her ideas in LD 1601.

If the proposed amendment is approved by two-thirds of both the House and Senate, it will be put before the voters in the fall.

The Education Committee also heard limited testimony on a bill that would require the state to provide at least 50 percent of school funding and to repay money it withheld from the funding formula in 1991.

Susan Young is a writer for the Bangor Daily News

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