Group that wants Maine to spend more on public schools nears petition goal

The coalition that is vying to ask voters whether they want to force the Legislature to ramp up spending for public schools, again, said this week that it is well on its way to gathering the signatures it needs before the Feb. 1 deadline.

The initiative, which is backed by a coalition called Stand Up For Students, seeks to bring state funding for public schools to 55 percent of the total cost and to earmark more of the state’s share directly for students, as opposed to administrators. The initiative would fund the increased spending with a 3 percent surcharge on Maine taxable income above $200,000. That would generate approximately $110 million per year, according to the coalition.

Stand Up for Students includes a range of organizations and individuals but is primarily composed of the Maine Education Association, the union that represents most public school teachers, and the Maine People’s Alliance, a progressive political advocacy group. MEA spokeswoman Giovanna Bechard said the coalition collected more than 25,000 signatures on Election Day last month alone and is well on its way to the more than 61,000 validated signatures required to force a question onto the November 2016 ballot.

This is the second time Mainers will attempt to force a certain level of spending for pre-kindergarten to 12th grade education. In 2004, voters called for state government to fund 55 percent of the cost of public education but that threshold has never been met.

Bechard said the coalition is relying on volunteer members of the MPA and MEA but is also using some paid signature gatherers.

“Like the other ballot initiative campaigns out there, including the initiative to close the gun sales loophole, the Stand Up for Students campaign is using some paid petition gatherers,” said Bechard. “There are also hundreds of MEA members taking petitions to events all over Maine.”

According to an email to public school teachers forwarded to the BDN, the MEA is encouraging signature collections among volunteers through a unique method: pre-paid Visa gift cards.

“The MEA will give anyone who collects 100 signatures a $25 Visa Gift Card,” reads the email. “You can earn as many cards as you want.”

Bechard declined to discuss in detail the coalition’s signature-gathering methods.

Christopher Cousins

About Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.