After years of complaints that public education is underfunded, Maryland schools will see an unprecedented influx of cash in the coming years, $3 billion in federal dollars and billions more in state and local money.
The additional money is designed help students recover from the learning losses experienced during the pandemic, as well as help build what is supposed to be “a world class educational system” with particular focus on early childhood education, career and technical education in high schools, and support for children living in impoverished neighborhoods.
School districts with the highest numbers of economically disadvantaged students and the largest enrollments will receive the most money.
Baltimore City, where about 85% of students qualify for subsidized school meals, will see an additional $689 million in federal money by the end of 2023, the largest amount of any district in the state. Baltimore County, with about 41% qualifying for subsidized meals, will get $337 million and Anne Arundel with 32% disadvantaged, will receive $168 million.
Howard County, where 15% of students qualify for subsidized meals, will receive $67 million in federal funds, Carroll, with 22% qualifying for subsidized meals, $26 million, and Harford, with 29% students receiving subsidized meals, $65 million.
“The funding is being used in a wide variety of ways, not to just mend and recover from the disruption ... that the pandemic has created,” Maryland State School Superintendent Mohammed Choudhury said. “It has to be a moment to re-imagine and restructure things that haven’t been working,”
In 2019, for instance, 24% of disadvantaged students passed statewide third grade math tests, while 58% of those who aren’t disadvantaged passed.
Choudhury, who was installed in July, has been emphasizing at public meetings his desire that schools not just return to their pre-pandemic normal, which he said was not good enough. He wants to see disparities in academic success diminish between different racial and other student groups.
“The money is there to do some very important things,” he said. “We cannot mess up this moment.”
The new money comes from the confluence of American Rescue Plan money passed by Congress to help school districts pay for pandemic-related costs and the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, a bill passed by the Maryland General Assembly in 2019, that requires a gradual but significant increase in school spending every year. By 2030, the state will be spending $2.9 billion more each year on education.
The federal recovery money will be spent in a variety of ways previously approved by federal and state education leaders, on everything from COVID-19 testing and school ventilation upgrades to tutoring and summer school.
While the one-time pot of federal dollars will end in 2023, school leaders say they can use it to complement the state funds that will increase every year for the next decade.
SIZING UP SURGE IN SCHOOL FUNDING
How much in total districts are spending per student now
How much extra per student is coming from federal and state governments
Baltimore City schools CEO Sonja Santelises said her district is considering “how do we approach the use of the one-time federal dollars to jump start the promise of the Blueprint money.”
While some of the federal money is being used to pay for pandemic-related problems, the bulk of it hasn’t reached school district coffers yet.
Before the pandemic, Santelises said the school system had prioritized bringing back the arts, athletics, music, world languages and other activities that she views as vital to providing an enriching education that city students deserve. All but the very basic subjects such as math, science and English had been stripped away from many city schools in recent years due to lack of money.
The pandemic, she said, has increased her desire to build back those activities quickly to help students recover mentally and socially from their 18 months of isolation.
In schools with athletics in middle and high schools, “we are seeing the impact of it on overall health, mental health and physical well being,” she said.
The district will introduce a plan for middle school athletics in January, she said.
But Santelises also is going to use the federal money for some quick one-time fixes. For example, she is overhauling the bathrooms in the 20 schools with the worst ones.
Choudhury said districts are trying out creative ideas such as summer trade academies at community colleges in Harford County and mobile tutoring hubs that travel to different parts of rural Frederick County.
In fiscal year 2023, the city schools will get an additional $280 million in state aid, a significant increase for a system with an annual operating budget this year of $1.2 billion a year. The level of funding continues to rise over subsequent years to $620 million more by fiscal 2030 even as enrollment is expected to continue to decline.
The use of federal funds could help speed up the implementation of the community schools model, which would not be fully funded for nine years under the Blueprint, said Shamoyia Gardiner, executive director of Strong Schools Maryland, a coalition of parents, teachers and community members.
Community schools aim to serve the broader needs of their students’ families, offering services ranging from food pantries to afternoon school buses that allow students to stay for after-school activities without requiring a parent to pick them up.
In Baltimore County, school principals at Dundalk and Logan elementary schools are looking forward to starting the process of becoming community schools.
While the federal money some schools get fluctuates from year to year, Logan Elementary Principal Mike Parker said the new state funding will be a “real commitment” that will build a sustainable structure allowing schools to serve as community hubs.
Over the years, Parker said, schools have been asked to play many roles with teachers bearing most of the responsibility for filling in when they saw children in need.
Dundalk Principal Jennifer Pilarski said that school will provide what the community says it is looking for in services.
“We are looking at the needs of the community that is outside of our sphere of influence but trickle down,” she said. “If you are worried about your next meal or whether there will be someone home when you get there, you aren’t going to be able to learn your math facts.”
Gardiner said the state also could build more of the early education centers known as Judy Centers at a faster rate than the nine anticipated to be added each year, she said. Judy Centers have been shown to help prepare students for school.
How the federal money will be spent will be determined in part by the priorities of the Blueprint, said William “Brit” Kirwan, who headed the commission that created the Blueprint.
The Blueprint requires the governor to appoint an accountability board to oversee the expenditures. The board, appointed last week, will have the power to withhold state funds if a school district is not spending it on the goals of the plan. Kirwan, who sits on the accountability board, said he expects school superintendents, after focusing on the most immediate needs of the pandemic, to pick projects that overlap with the Blueprint.
“The superintendents know the Blueprint is a 10-year plan and they will be held accountable,” Kirwan said.
A governor cannot reduce the level of the funding promised in the Blueprint because it is mandated by state law. The legislature would have to reduce it, as it did when during the 2009 recession when it decided to not use the cost of inflation in calculating its funding formula for each school district.