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Maryland community colleges deserve to be a higher educational priority | COMMENTARY

English professor Stacy Korbelak, center, carries the mace followed by Dr. Kathleen Hetherington, President, left, and Kevin J. Doyle, Chair, Board of Trusteess, during the faculty procession at Howard Community College commencement last year. Gov. Larry Hogan has proposed a smaller increase in state aid to community colleges than anticipated next year.
English professor Stacy Korbelak, center, carries the mace followed by Dr. Kathleen Hetherington, President, left, and Kevin J. Doyle, Chair, Board of Trusteess, during the faculty procession at Howard Community College commencement last year. Gov. Larry Hogan has proposed a smaller increase in state aid to community colleges than anticipated next year.(KAREN JACKSON/Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Community colleges are often called the workhorses of higher education and rightly so. They provide more affordable, more accessible opportunities to a more diverse student body than this country’s four-year colleges have ever done. And they help make up for high schools’ shortcomings and for shifting needs of employers, offering remedial, technical and mid-career training classes that are vital for student success and for the state’s continued prosperity. These are just a few of the reasons behind the Maryland General Assembly’s adoption of the John A. Cade Funding Formula nearly a quarter-century ago that has been gradually raising state support for community colleges. Much as these advantages surely helped convince Gov. Larry Hogan to sign legislation just two years ago providing scholarships to low-income Marylanders who enroll in community college, making a two-year degree essentially free to those who qualify.

Yet despite all this good will, the same governor who likes to boast about record levels of education funding during his time in office has chosen to slash community college funding — and not just for the coming fiscal year. Under the state budget and accompanying legislation Governor Hogan unveiled last week, Maryland’s community colleges would get just half of the increase in state aid anticipated under Cade (about $18 million less). But more disappointingly, it calls on a long-term reduction in Cade growth, essentially denying the schools a collective $100 million between now and 2025. That’s no small hit to schools and their more than 300,000 students. Cuts in state aid usually translate into increased costs to local government and in higher tuition.

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Making matters worse is that community colleges have already essentially taken a $100 million hit. When the Cade formula was approved in 1996 (named after a prominent Republican lawmaker, by the way), the state’s share was supposed to have reached its maximum of one-third (or 29% to be precise) eight years ago. It’s been delayed multiple times and not just by Governor Hogan. Had the formula stayed the course, the community colleges would have received $100 million more than they have to date. The current governor has long criticized Cade as an unfunded mandate and believes community college funding should be tied to general fund growth. But that ignores both the value of the schools and the state’s failure to stick to its promise.

We would debate state finances with the governor, but his view of them seems to keep shifting. One day, the Kirwan proposal is unaffordable and a burden on local governments because of their matching share. The next, he’s unveiling a $1 billion plan to lower state taxes for retirees living on nearly six-figure incomes while simultaneously reducing promised aid to colleges and thereby cost-shifting that expense to local government. So which is it? Is state government flush or running a deficit? Must local governments be spared added cost or should they be expected to pay more for schools? It can be confusing to follow the Hogan fiscal logic — except to anticipate that this administration will make all kinds of tax-cutting promises knowing full well the General Assembly won’t approve them, nor should they. And that’s a win-win for the governor, polishing his reputation as a fiscal conservative without actually having to make any tough choices.

Mr. Hogan doesn’t like mandated spending. We get that. Governors often don’t. It gives them less flexibility. Current revenue projections don’t match current spending projections in future years leading to a theoretical budget deficit. We get that, too. But if anyone in Annapolis is going to get serious about assessing Maryland’s legitimate needs and its capacity to pay for them, it first needs to start with fewer flights of fancy — like the notion that a flood of seniors will choose to retire in Maryland if the state income tax is reduced when the reality is that Maryland is a high cost-of-living state. It isn’t taxes, it’s home prices, food and drug costs that are rough on seniors. And if the governor could do something about the weather, that would be nice, too.

That leaves it up to legislators to restore community college funding this session and keep the state on track for full Cade funding by 2023. The young men and women who benefit from two-year degrees most may not be as politically important a constituency to Mr. Hogan as voting seniors but they ought to be. These Marylanders were made a promise before most were even born of an affordable, taxpayer-supported post-secondary education. It deserves to be kept.

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