Hogan sets up a schools showdown

In campaigning for re-election, Gov. Larry Hogan often said he believed that all children deserved access to an excellent education regardless of where they live, and on Tuesday, he proposed doing something serious about it: a five-year, $1.9 billion commitment to funding a massive school construction program. There’s no question that far too many children in this state attend schools that are outdated, dilapidated or overcrowded (or all three), and as Prince George’s County Executive Angela Alsobrooks noted during the governor’s announcement, the quality of school buildings sends a message to children about how much or little we value them. Still, the governor’s proposal needs some serious thought, first to determine whether it is the most efficient and effective way to address the inequities the governor lamented on Tuesday, and second to figure out how this proposal fits in with Maryland’s needs to address not just the physical structure of its schools but also what goes on inside them.

Governor Hogan is proposing using part of the money designated for supplemental education funding through the “lockbox” amendment Maryland voters approved in November. The amendment forces the governor and General Assembly to use casino tax dollars to supplement the amount existing funding formulas require the state to spend on public schools, either for operating costs or capital projects. It’s projected to result in a boost of about $4.4 billion in total funding over the next decade. (It’s not free money, though; the state will have to find a way to backfill the other spending on health care, the environment, public safety, etc., that the casino funds would otherwise have covered.) The governor says this plan would use less than half of the lockbox funds.

The idea presents some policy questions that need to be carefully considered. Mr. Hogan is proposing to use the lockbox funds to support the issuance of revenue bonds through the Maryland Stadium Authority. That would accelerate the work (and would help avoid issues related to the state’s general obligation bond debt limit) but at higher long-term costs. It also presents accountability questions. Mr. Hogan indicated that the Board of Public Works, which he chairs, would approve specific projects, but would the Inter-Agency Committee on School Construction still have a say in evaluating their merit? Mr. Hogan said the funds, in conjunction with already planned spending, would cover 90 percent of the projects counties have requested through 2024. Is that the universe from which projects will be eligible for these funds? Counties (and Baltimore City) don’t typically request money for projects unless they are able to meet the requirements for local matching funds. As such, the projects on the list might not necessarily be the ones that do the most to foster the kind of equity Mr. Hogan says is his goal.

But there’s a broader context, too. Mr. Hogan’s announcement comes shortly after the Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education (a.k.a. the Kirwan Commission) came up with a preliminary estimate for the cost of implementing its recommendations for making Maryland schools competitive in a global, 21st century economy. Its policy prescriptions — including a major expansion of early childhood education, steps to upgrade the standards for teachers and new funding formulas to address the challenges posed by concentrated poverty — would add about $4.4 billion in operating costs per year when fully phased in a decade from now. Mr. Hogan said Tuesday that Maryland can’t afford them without a tax increase, and he’s not going to support one.

It’s not surprising that he would say that, but it is disappointing that Mr. Hogan has not engaged in a more detailed discussion about the merits of the policies, their costs or benefits, and that he is not acknowledging that spending part of the lockbox money on capital needs makes meeting operating ones more difficult. What Mr. Hogan is suggesting involves a trade-off, and we’re not sure it’s the one most parents would make. Consider this: Would you rather your child go to a dilapidated school with outstanding teaching or to a shiny, new one with sub-standard or even mediocre instruction? We fully agree, for example, that perennially high-performing Dulaney High School is in terrible condition and probably needs to be replaced, but we also notice that parents aren’t pulling their kids out. Great academics trump brown water.

Ideally, we would do both. We would meet all of our needs for school construction, renovation and maintenance while simultaneously making the investments necessary to ensure every student in every community gets a top-notch education. But realistically, we are going to need to set priorities and make choices. There’s a balance to be found. What’s worrisome is the possibility that the governor’s announcement will turn what should be a conversation into a partisan conflict. Mr. Hogan and the Democratic leaders of the General Assembly demonstrated an ability to quietly work together on common goals in the past. If ever there was a situation that demands that, this is it.

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