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Sen. Cassilly: Money isn’t the answer to everything that ails public education in Maryland [Commentary]

Adequate funding of public education, especially for teachers’ salaries, is vital to our state as every study shows that a good education is crucial to lifetime success. So I look forward, with considerable interest, to working with members of the General Assembly this term as we wrestle with a proposal to dramatically increase school funding to support the recommendations of the Kirwan Commission. That commission was established by the General Assembly to identify deficiencies in public education and recommend responsible courses of action.

The commission identified a number of perceived deficiencies and recommended substantial increases in state and county taxes to support 10 annual increases of education funding of nearly $3 billion per year. While most of the spending targets are worthy of some level of additional funding, the immense increases proposed call for careful consideration. The General Assembly must not fall into the trap of judging the merits of new programs based upon the amount of money spent (inputs) as opposed to the results actually achieved (outcomes).

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Certain assumptions built into the process by which Kirwan funding proposals were developed are of concern. For example, the Commission’s approach is entirely spending focused, every problem a money problem. During my time serving in Iraq we referred to “money bombs,” dropping lots of cash on a problem, hoping it would go away. More money will not solve some of our biggest education challenges. For example, one of the major goals of the Kirwan Commission is reducing the number of young teachers leaving the profession. The Commission’s primary response to that concern is increased statewide spending on teachers’ salaries. While I do think that teacher salaries should be increased, an NBC poll of teachers in Maryland and the region found that only 13% of teachers cited low salary as their reason for leaving teaching. Nearly 70% cited stress, lack of support and lack of student discipline. Increased spending will not reverse the policies and laws that have eroded teacher discretion, removed discipline from schools and made some schools an environment in which no self-respecting adult wants to work.

Another misplaced Kirwan assumption is that education is failing everywhere and every Kirwan proposal must be fully funded now. This conclusion is not supported by the data. Some counties and some schools are doing very well while others are seriously challenged. We can target certain spending to address major problems in specific jurisdictions without overextending the budget with broad, statewide spending on every concern. Senate Republicans asked the Commission to recommend priorities of funding. The response was that every single spending recommendation is urgent and any delay of full funding presents an unacceptable risk to our future. While such headline grabbing predictions of doom have become common occurrence, they are not helpful to the legislative process.

There are also concerns with the proposed formula used to calculate levels of state funding for each of the 24 jurisdictions. The new Kirwan formula would allocate nearly $3 billion each year toward four primary targets: teacher salaries ($75 million), special education ($65.4 million), “concentration of poverty” ($52.7 million), full day prekindergarten ($64 million), and lesser amounts to lower priorities. Harford County would receive a reasonable share of the first two categories but not the second two. For FY 21, a full 56% of the prekindergarten funds and 76% of the concentration of poverty funds would go to just two jurisdictions, Baltimore City and Prince George’s County. The remaining 22 jurisdictions split the remainder.

The “concentration of poverty” factor is further flawed in that it allocates considerably more state tax dollars to those counties that have concentrated low income students into certain schools. By focusing on “concentrations of poverty,” rather than the total number of students living in poverty in a given county, the formula unfairly penalizes counties like Harford where, thanks to longstanding efforts to deconcentrate poverty in our schools, none of our high schools would qualify for these additional funds. The formula creates a bad incentive as a county could increase its share of state funding by millions of dollars by simply redrawing school district lines to concentrate low income families into certain schools.

I look forward to working with my colleagues in the General Assembly as we address these difficult challenges and I look forward to receiving suggestions from all interested parties.

Bob Cassilly is a Republican member of the Maryland State Sentate representing District 34.

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