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Is Maryland in for a schoolyard brawl over schools?

Education reform will be the biggest issue of the Maryland legislature's 2020 session, which kicks off Jan. 8th.
Education reform will be the biggest issue of the Maryland legislature's 2020 session, which kicks off Jan. 8th. (Antonio Perez / Chicago Tribune)

As Maryland’s Republican governor and its Democrat-controlled legislature prepare to touch gloves and ring the bell Wednesday on the education battle they’ve been previewing for months, we would caution each side to remember that far more than their political reputations are at stake in the outcome.

Education reform and how to pay for it is the single most important issue of the General Assembly’s 2020 session, which launches Jan. 8th. And while Gov. Larry Hogan and state lawmakers are largely on the same page when it comes to addressing a backlog of classroom construction requests, they’re worlds apart on the plans for classroom instruction and how to pay for them.

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The decisions they make this year will not only affect Marylanders’ pocketbooks, but our children’s futures and the success of the state overall. If we fail to better educate and train our next generations, businesses will pass us by, along with opportunities. We simply cannot afford to not do better.

Maryland students are performing in the middle nationally in a country that’s performing in the middle globally. We have huge gaps in achievement based on race and income, and fewer than 40% of our young people are graduating high school prepared for college or careers. And this is in a state with one of the highest median incomes in America. Even people with means are not doing as well as they should.

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Last year, the legislature got the ball rolling by passing the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, based on interim recommendations from the Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education, also known as the Kirwan Commission. It set aside funding through fiscal 2021 to begin implementing critical improvement programs meant to close achievement gaps and attract and retain highly qualified teachers.

This year, lawmakers must go further and put into law the funding formulas that will determine the split in costs between the state and school districts. And they must find reasonable ways to pay for Maryland’s share.

To get there, it’s going to take creative thinking and compromise. But so far, we’ve seen a lot of retreating to conventional corners, with the governor turning to scare tactics regarding the costs of reform, and the legislators trotting out terrifying scenarios of what will happen if we fail to change.

Admittedly, we find the latter threat to be the greater danger to the state. But “throwing money” at the education problem, a favorite criticism of critics, is no way to solve it. Strategically investing money in data-driven strategies within a framework of accountability is more the route we prefer. That’s what Marylanders are willing to pay for — within reason.

We take the Democratic legislators at their words when they say they will not consider wholesale property, sales or income tax increases. But we’re not convinced that whatever they come up with won’t be more painful than they’re suggesting. Legalized sports betting has been raised repeatedly as a potential revenue source, for example. But it would only add an additional $7 million to the state’s share of gross revenues in this fiscal year, according to a Department of Legislative Services estimate — $14 million if mobile betting had been authorized. That’s a far cry from the additional $2.8 billion the state will need annually to afford reform once all recommendations are implemented in fiscal year 2030 ($1.2 billion from local jurisdictions).

We’d like to hear the governor’s ideas on this, but he appears more focused on shutting down additional spending altogether than responsibly implementing it. He declined to talk with Sun reporters for a story on the session’s education focus and has previously called the education commission recommendations “half-baked,” even though he appointed the chairman and his budget secretary was a member.

Perhaps that was all just part of the pre-game, political show. We certainly hope so, because if we don’t find a fiscally feasible way to become more competitive, we all lose.

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