Hogan vs. Dems: Whose lockbox is better? How about none of the above

Gov. Larry Hogan says his “lockbox” for Maryland casino revenue is better because it wouldn’t take a voter referendum to enact. Democratic leaders say theirs is better because future lawmakers wouldn’t be able to raid it with a simple majority vote. Besides, they say, they suggested it first. But wait, Governor Hogan says, we wouldn’t be in this spot at all if they and former Gov. Martin O’Malley hadn’t lied to voters about where casino revenues went in the first place.

For the record: We warned you, Maryland voters, approximately umpteen times before the state legalized slot machine gambling in 2008, and again before Maryland voted to allow full casinos in 2012, that not one penny of extra funds would go to education as a result. Taxes on gambling go into an education trust fund, true, but the amount the state spends on its schools every year is governed by a formula that takes into account things like enrollment, the number of students with special needs and local wealth. The education trust fund covers part of that cost and frees up general fund monies that would otherwise have gone to schools to be used for other purposes — health care, public safety, environmental protection and so on. To the extent that Mr. O’Malley and other backers of the gambling referendums convinced voters that casinos would somehow benefit education, they were being misleading at best.

That said, the lockbox question is a distraction from the real question. We should determine how much to spend on our schools based on what it costs to provide all students with a high quality education that prepares them for college and career in the 21st century, not based on how much people gamble.

As it should happen, Maryland has for the last two years been engaged in an exercise to determine what it would take, not just in terms of dollars but in terms of policies and priorities, to make all of the state’s students — regardless of their background or where they live — competitive in the global economy. The Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education (better known as the Kirwan Commission for its chairman, former University System of Maryland Chancellor William E. “Brit” Kirwan) released a preliminary report Thursday, with a final version to follow shortly after this legislative session ends. The group’s conclusion is that Maryland students are mediocre nationally and internationally, and that troubling achievement gaps persist. They’re calling for updated funding formulas, in large part to provide extra assistance to schools with high concentrations of poor students and those with special needs; an expansion of pre-K; improved teacher training and compensation; expanded availability of Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate programs; joint enrollment with community colleges and technical education programs; and more. It’s not all about spending more money — the commission is also recommending greater accountability measures and changes to the way schools operate. But it will almost without a doubt come with a big price tag.

Just how much that will be, we don’t yet know, but consultants along the way have suggested it could run into the billions per year — far more than what the Hogan or Democratic lockboxes would contain. We can’t pass either version of the lockbox legislation and pretend the problem is solved. Indeed, for all the questions the lockbox proposals have generated about where the state government would come up with the money to compensate for the newly fenced-off funds, the real challenge we face if we want to abide by the Maryland constitution’s requirement that we provide an adequate public education is much greater. House Speaker Michael E. Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller on Thursday announced legislation to begin implementing some of the Kirwan Commission’s ideas, but the big lift is to come. Our leaders should set both of these lockbox proposals aside, wait for the commission’s final report and have an honest, gimmick-free conversation with voters during this year’s election about how we can keep our promise to our children.

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