Md. must stop the education funding crisis cycle

Op-ed: Md. should address the immediate education funding crisis by using the casino money promised to schools

When they needed citizen support, advocates of casino gambling promised more money— "hundreds of millions" — to improve education for Maryland's children. That promise has not been kept. While $1.7 billion of casino earnings have gone into the Education Trust Fund, much of that has gone out the back door to cover other state expenditures having nothing to do with education. With this "sleight of hand," our children's education is once again shortchanged. State officials argue that without the casino money, funds for education would have gone down. But this "alternative fact" is not reality. The current state education funding formula would have prevented such a decrease unless state decision-makers reneged on that promise too. It's "smoke and mirrors" with very real damage to our children and schools.

Now is the time to make it right, starting with the 2017-18 school budget. Nine of Maryland's 24 school districts are projected to lose money, including $42 million in Baltimore City. The casinos are projected to generate $500 million this year for the Education Trust Fund. Just a small portion of these resources would make all nine districts whole, with significant funds remaining. The casinos pull in huge amounts in short periods of time. MGM National Harbor raked in nearly $42 million in gross revenue during its first three weeks of operation last December. And that is only one casino.

The state should use the Education Trust Fund to meet immediate shortfall needs of Maryland's schools, but that alone is not sufficient. Baltimore's schools, for example, are facing a much greater risk than next year's projected funding formula loss. If the city received what the original funding formula promised, it would have $290 million more this year, instead of the $130 million projected deficit for next year. This structural deficit has emerged over the last eight years as the state has not met the promise of its education funding formula. Instead, funding has been virtually flat.

A renewed commitment to adequacy and equity is essential. We must stop the cycle of a crisis that occurs each year as we fail to keep the clear promise made to our children. That promise was made not just to Baltimore's children, but to every child in our state, including those who are low-income, do not speak English as a first language and those who have disabilities. Baltimore City has the biggest problem, because we have the most children living in concentrated poverty. However, 56 percent (801) of all schools in Maryland across our 24 school districts have a student population of more than 40 percent who are eligible for free and reduced priced meals. Poverty looms as our biggest education challenge from the Eastern Shore to the fields of St Mary's County, through Baltimore City and Baltimore County to the lake country of Garrett County.

Last year a legislative study determined that it would cost $2.9 billion more to provide adequate funding for all children in all of Maryland's schools. The governor and the legislature set up a commission (known as the Kirwan Commission) with a mandate to submit recommendations to be considered as early as the 2018 legislative session for a new formula that includes essential education initiatives such as full day pre-Kindergarten, community schools and strategies to ensure quality teachers and principals. Our long-term goal is an adequate system of education that provides real opportunity for all our children.

In the short-term, the funds promised in the casino deal are essential to meet our immediate crisis. Our citizens were asked to support casino legislation with the promise that these funds would add to — not supplant — current education funds. Why would we support casinos if it were just a "wash"? There would be no gain for our schools and students, just a "bad deal."

Let's do what's right. A good education guarantees a better qualified workforce, economic development, lower health and welfare costs, less crime, fewer prisons and more productive citizens. The Kirwan Commission will work to address the long-term needs of successful schools for Maryland. The state should address the immediate crisis by using the casino money promised to our children. It would be a good "opening bid" toward what we need to do for the long term.

David W. Hornbeck is a former Maryland state superintendent of schools and a former Philadelphia superintendent of schools. His email is dhornbeck1@comcast.net.

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