It’s time for Augusta to take an econ course in Education

What if I told you a local Maine business had lost 10 percent of its customers over the past 10 years? And in that same time, its costs increased 26 percent and its product quality was flat. If you were guessing, would you say this business is primed for success?

Probably not.

Unfortunately, that is the trajectory of Maine’s public school system. In the 2004-2005 school year, we had over 203,000 students; for 2014-2015, it was approximately 180,000. Meanwhile, we’ve added nearly $500 million to education spending in Maine at the state and local levels.

Fewer students, more money. The results? Flat test scores. In 2005-2006, 46.5 percent of Maine students met or exceeded the standards of the Maine High School Assessment. In 2013-2014, 46.4 percent did.

Now, the analogy to a small business isn’t perfect; schools aren’t forced to compete for students, nor is their objective to turn a profit. But as any student in an economics class — be it home economics or Advanced Placement — will tell you, spending more and more for the exact same thing is neither sustainable nor efficient. On a per-student basis, we’ve added over $2,000 in educational spending in the past 10 years, even when adjusted for inflation.

That is why the continual calls for simply throwing more money at education drive Gov. Paul LePage, among others, crazy. By any measure, spending on public education in Maine is higher than ever while achievement is flat. And while a standardized test may not be the best yardstick of an individual’s progress, statistics are real and a viable way to measure group outcomes.

Abstract from K-12 for a moment and look at higher education. In 2004-2005, the annual cost for a resident to attend UMaine and live on campus was about $12,750. To live on campus in Orono today, as a Maine resident, you’re spending nearly $24,000. Even after you adjust for inflation, the cost has increased by about $8,000. Is a degree from our flagship university today worth 50 percent more than it was a decade ago? Of course not.

Money in education is a lot like money in politics: you need some, but there is a point where returns diminish and an additional dollar doesn’t add much value. Or look at sports; RSU 22 spends more per student than Augusta. That didn’t stop the Cony Rams from beating Hampden Academy in the basketball tournament.

As the Legislature considers the governor’s education reform proposals, exploring ways to spend money more wisely — rather than simply throwing more money at it — will likely pay dividends for both Maine students and taxpayers.

Over the past 10 years, we’ve increased our spending on “Staff and Student Support” by 75 percent. Debt service for capital investment in schools has increased by almost 24 percent, despite the still-historically low interest rate environment.

“Support” and debt service reflect the political realities of education. Spend any time in Augusta and watch as the Education Committee hears myriad “good ideas.” Students should learn how to use a defibrillator. Or firearms safety. Or pick another pet cause. They are all worthwhile subjects, but the cumulative effect means schools are forced to hire “coordinators” to manage and report on their compliance.

A makeshift teaching space at Harrison Lyseth Elementary School in Portland. Troy R. Bennett | BDN

A makeshift teaching space at Harrison Lyseth Elementary School in Portland. Troy R. Bennett | BDN

For debt service, you need only look at Portland. It seems likely taxpayers will have an opportunity to decide if they want to borrow $60-some million to repair and rebuild crumbling infrastructure. But the fact that the question exists raises another: why did the schools reach a point where millions are necessary to improve the buildings?

The answer is simple: routine maintenance is the first place government cuts. It is short-sighted, but elections don’t often reward long-term vision. We all know it is easier to spend the time or money to clear our roofs, rather than rebuild when the leaks inevitably come.

Government doesn’t work that way. A repair can always be put off in order to provide a service today. Programs at the state and federal levels will often throw dollars at capital projects, lessening the burden on towns. Responsible management doesn’t have a federal match.

When it comes to education, Maine taxpayers are spending more than they ever have. But, if test results are to be believed, we are not spending it in the right way. Dollars need to follow the students into the classroom. Our infrastructure — both physical and administrative — needs to be sized correctly for the student population we have and can expect.

So, while schools may not be businesses, the need for efficiency is still real. When it comes to dollars spent on education, we might be at the point of diminishing returns. It’s up to Augusta to take a hard look and see if that’s true. It won’t be easy but, hey, neither is AP Economics.

Michael Cianchette

About Michael Cianchette

Michael Cianchette was the chief counsel to Gov. Paul LePage from 2012-2013 and deputy counsel from 2011-2012. A Navy reservist, he was deployed to Afghanistan from 2013-2014 as a trainer and adviser to the Afghan National Police. He is an alumnus of the Leadership Maine program and holds a BA in economics and political science from Boston College along with a JD and an MBA from Suffolk University. He works as in-house counsel and financial manager for a number of affiliated companies in southern Maine.