Maryland’s Education Debate: Blank Check vs Accountability
By Mark Uncapher
State spending for public education under Governor Larry Hogan has reached a record $5.8 billion, fully funded previously adopted distribution formulas. Maryland’s average spending per pupil now totals over $15,000.
Record funding, however, far from satisfies the Maryland State Education Association, the state’s primary teacher union. MSEA and their political allies insist that our state and counties both write even bigger checks, but also accept even less accountability for performance.
Repeatedly during the past four years, MSEA and their Democratic party allies in the General Assembly have pushed to reduce oversight over Maryland’s school spending.
The need for oversight is highlighted by recurring school district scandals:
- Five thousand students were cheated out of an education they deserve after widespread grade-fixing in Prince George's County.
- Thirteen schools in Baltimore City had zero students proficient in math and thousands of students have been without heat or air conditioning.
- The former Baltimore County School superintendent plead guilty after lying in court trying to cover up a bribery scandal.
- Howard County Schools tried - and failed - to cover up a mold crisis, resulting in the resignation of the superintendent.
This past year, over the Governor’s veto, the legislature removed the state’s Board of Public Works oversight of the school construction process. The action removed the direct role of two statewide elected officials and handed of the process to unelected appointees.
As Democratic Comptroller Franchot commented at the time, he was “..very disappointed that the Senate & the House voted to override the Governor’s veto on a bill that would reduce transparency and accountability on our school construction program. Marylanders deserve and expect better from their elected officials.”
Breakdowns in the school construction process were manifestly evident at the outset of the current school year as schools in Baltimore County and City remained closed because the districts had yet to install air conditioning. While funds had been provided by the state to do so, the local districts were unable to complete the upgrades in time. Under the legislature’s new school construction process, the Governor and Comptroller will have even less management leverage to ensure that funded projects are completed promptly.
These air conditioning construction failures are worth considering in the context of the MSEA’s apoplectic rage at the Governor when he changed the school calendar to move the school year start date after Labor Day. Had the unairconditioned schools been required to open earlier, even more instructional time might have been lost to the heat.
All this sets the stage for the looming recommendations of the Kirwan Commission to adjust state public education formulas. The General Assembly and Gov. Larry Hogan in 2016 created the Maryland Commission on Education and Innovation, better known as the "Kirwan Commission." This commission, led by William "Brit" Kirwan, is charged with recommending legislation to update the current funding formula and advising how Maryland should invest resources to meet the needs of every student. Such an examination of the funding formula has not been completed since 2002.
Costs statewide are split roughly 50-50 between the state and counties. However, the variations among counties are considerable. Baltimore City picks up just 21% of its own costs, while Worcester County covers 72% of its spending.
The Commission has already missed its deadline for making final recommendations. Some have speculated that they are stumbling over the potential political consequences of recommending that Montgomery County get a dramatically reduced amount of state aid.
Chairman Kirwan has publicly acknowledged that: “meaningful portions of any new funding would be allocated to LEAs [local education agencies, the county school systems] based on solid evidence that the commission’s recommendations had been faithfully implemented and that they were producing demonstrable results.” In plainer language, accountability.
This set the stage for a policy conflict likely to dominate the coming years in Maryland politics.
 See Table 6.7a, projecting a possible $354 million reduction for support to the Montgomery County Public Schools. http://mgaleg.maryland.gov/Pubs/CommTFWorkgrp/2016-Innovation-Excellence-in-Education-Commission-2016-12-08.pdf