Editorial: Consider allowing counties to skip state education mandates if school funding dips

Color us intrigued by a proposal by Commissioner Doug Howard for county staff to draft legislation for the county’s delegation to submit that would exempt Carroll from certain state education mandates that aren’t graduation requirements or required by the federal government if state funding dips below a certain percentage.

It’s such a radical change in thinking that we’re not sure it would get anywhere in Annapolis, but Howard’s reasoning is sound. Essentially: Give us more money or give us more say. That way, the school system would be less restricted in where it can cut to save money. It seems perfectly reasonable, but that sort of thinking hasn’t stopped government before.


For years, local officials — and not just in Carroll — have grumbled over so-called unfunded mandates from state government, such as expanding prekindergarten, daily physical education and using binding arbitration for union contract disputes. And rightfully so. These unfunded mandates lessen the ability of local school systems to address needs unique to their communities and circumstances, effectively tying the hands of local boards of education.

Unlike in many other school districts across the country, including just over the line in Pennsylvania, Maryland boards of education are entirely dependent on local, state and federal funding, and cannot impose taxes themselves.

When state bureaucrats implement legislation or regulations that increase the overall cost of education without specific funding mechanisms, the burden falls on city and county governments to find ways to pay for it. That means local jurisdictions must either increase revenues (i.e., tax increases) or cut from other programs and services. Sometimes, those cuts may come from the education funding pie; other times, they might affect other services funded by local governments like public safety, infrastructure or health.

Nearly every jurisdiction in state, according to the Maryland Association of Boards of Education, funnels 50 percent or more of total revenue from property and income taxes collected toward the local public school systems and are required by the state to meet the “maintenance of effort” that funding is at least on the same level from one year to the next on a per pupil basis.

Funding from state government, however, does not have to meet such requirements under the Thornton formula, which considers enrollment and relative wealth when determining how much funding each jurisdiction receives. That formula is being reconsidered by the Kirwan Commission, but that group has already delayed its recommendations, initially due by the end of this year, likely until after the 2018 legislative session is complete in the spring.

Howard’s idea would put a threshold on how much say state officials could have on local education decisions if the state isn’t at least somewhat of an equal partner in paying for school systems to operate — 40 percent was a number thrown around during Thursday’s commissioner meeting. That wasn’t an arbitrary figure. In the current fiscal year 2018 budget, the state’s portion of the CCPS funding pie dipped to 38.5 percent, while the county’s rose to 56.1 percent. Those trends are expected to continue in the coming year’s budget.

In business terms, if you had a 56 percent share of the company and your partner had a 38.5 percent share, which one would have a greater say in the decision-making? The one with the greater investment, of course. That’s not to say the minority partner can’t make suggestions — some of them will probably even be good ideas — but the majority stakeholder makes the final call, often based on what the company can afford. (Although, to be clear, we are not saying the county commissioners should have sway over education decisions either; rather those choices are best left up to the local BOE.)

County governments and school boards are on the same page that they have long advocated for more local control of education decisions without unfunded mandates imposed by the state, and we suspect that Howard’s proposal would resonate with a number of jurisdictions and BOEs as a mechanism for change. Would state lawmakers buy in? That remains to be seen. Perhaps it could be brought up to the Kirwan Commission to consider as part of its recommendations for changes to the funding formula, although it would still ultimately require approval from the state legislature.

Still, we think this is a good idea that warrants further exploration from the legislature as it seeks to address school funding not just for Carroll, but all of Maryland.