A Strange Tale of Education Budgets

Maine’s legislature recently engaged in a strange exercise. A representative introduced a bill to eliminate local referenda on educational budgets. The bill read in part:

A regional school unit’s budget must be approved at a regional school unit budget meeting and by a budget validation referendum as provided in section 1486.

The very next day, the bill’s sponsor disavowed the measure, after he was inundated by constituent mail opposing the proposal. After hearing Representative Howard McFadden’s mea culpa, the education committee unanimously voted the bill down, allowing localities to retain control of local education spending.

The issue was far from dead, however. The education committee was also considering a separate bill which contained a referendum-killing provision, ostensibly to enable easier school-consolidation measures.

Ultimately, a “tidal wave” of constituent input convinced the education committee to unanimously abandon the measure. For now Mainers retain the right to control local education spending, and judging by the hue-and-cry voters raised, by a significantly popular margin.

School consolidation in Maine is problematic. The state is divided into two radically different polities. Southern/Coastal Maine is relatively affluent and densely populated, while Northern and Central Maine are sparsely populated and less affluent.

Consolidation makes sense in many respects, but the economics are questionable. Some towns, like Fayette, have no higher education facilities, but have a voucher-style tuition system to send students to any of the surrounding high-schools, including a local private high school.

This kind of school choice introduces a modicum of competition into local systems, and allows families to choose the school that is best suited to their particular needs.

Instead of removing local control via consolidation measures, Maine’s education committee should consider measures introducing more personal and local choice.

Previously on Neighborhood Effects, Emily Washington wrote about education competition and Eileen Norcross detailed the struggles of D.C.’s controversial voucher system. Eileen also recently co-authored an issue of Mercatus On Policy on educational competition.

(H/T Maine Heritage Policy Center.)