School construction is one of the biggest responsibilities of state government, along with other major capital projects such as highways, roads and bridges. Over the last four years, Maryland has poured more than $250 million annually into school construction and renovation projects that have both enhanced the educational opportunities for its students and produced thousands of jobs for its residents. Gov. Martin O'Malley's pledge last week to continue funding school building projects at the same level over the next four years if he is re-elected in November signals he understands the importance of such efforts as an investment in Maryland's future.
No one doubts that the key to a quality education is a good teacher in every classroom. But classrooms and the buildings that house them also play a vital role in creating an environment in which students can learn. Studies have consistently shown that up-to-date science and computer labs, well-lighted and well-equipped classrooms, libraries, media centers and athletic facilities all have a measurable positive impact on student learning, attendance and graduation rates. At the same time, the lack of such facilities has just the opposite effect: students who attend classes in crumbling, ill-equipped buildings, with inadequate heating, cooling and ventilation, soon get the message of how little society values their education.
Mr. O'Malley's Republican opponent in the fall, former Gov. Robert Ehrlich Jr., declined through a spokesman to commit to funding school construction at the level Mr. O'Malley envisions – the spokesman charged that Mr. O'Malley "is promising to spend money he doesn't have" and warned that it would increase the state budget deficit.
Yet during Mr. Ehrlich's tenure in Annapolis he also borrowed heavily for capital construction projects and actually cut spending on schools to help pay for road projects like the Inter-County Connector linking Montgomery and Prince George's counties.
Maryland can't afford to neglect any of its vital infrastructure projects, but the state has managed to continue raising capital funds for schools through bond issues without jeopardizing its coveted Triple-A rating or busting the budget. A task force convened by state Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp in 2004 recommended the state spend about $250 million a year on upgrading school facilities and Maryland has been able to meet that goal over the last four years suggests it can continue to do so in the future.
Mr. O'Malley suggests that the $1 billion commitment he is making to school construction and renovation will generate more than 9,000 jobs. Job creation is a short-term benefit that his proposal shares with other large capital projects, and in an economic downturn like the present one every one of those jobs is sorely needed. But the long-term benefits of improving existing school buildings and creating new ones are even greater because Maryland's future depends on a well-educated workforce capable of meeting the challenges of the 21st century. For that the state will not only need dedicated, highly motivated teachers and principals, but also modern, well-equipped facilities that inspire children to excel.