The $63.1 billion state budget proposal revealed Friday by Gov. Wes Moore contained all kinds of insights into what the next four years might be like under the 44-year-old Democrat’s administration. It reflects a desire to do more than his Republican predecessor, Larry Hogan, was inclined to do without raising taxes or even zeroing out the current budget surplus. There was more money for transportation, for improving the environment and for extending tax breaks for low and moderate-income families. But most important of all, it made a strong commitment to the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, reallocating $500 million toward the K-12 school reform plan along with boosting aid to school construction and public schoolteacher recruitment. And with that choice, the new governor has signaled that the Blueprint, the multibillion-dollar, 10-year effort to improve and enhance public education launched by the Kirwan Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education and approved by the General Assembly in 2020, now has the full support of the executive branch.
The timing could scarcely be better. The gap between the haves and have-nots in Maryland’s 24 public school systems has always been great, but the learning loss suffered by many students during the COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated the problem. Test scores released last fall show that a majority of Maryland’s 4th and 8th grade students are not proficient at math or reading. In Baltimore, the proficiency rate is less than half the statewide average. And while concentrated poverty, gun violence, racism and substance abuse may be at the heart of many of Baltimore’s problems, it is difficult to believe that Governor Moore’s campaign promise to “leave no one behind” can be accomplished if youngsters growing up in the city — or anywhere else — do not have access to a quality public education and the career and college pathways that come with it.
To suggest that Hogan was not a supporter of school reform is merely to state the obvious. The former governor often pontificated against raising teacher salaries — a crucial component of improving teacher performance, training and retention — suggesting it was more of a sop to public school labor unions than any advancement of educational goals.
In Moore’s budget talk Friday, he acknowledged that the “critically overdue” Blueprint has so far suffered an “uneven and sloppy” start. But then that should not have come as a surprise given how Hogan vetoed the plan, the setback subsequently overcome by the overrides by the House of Delegates and state Senate. Lawmakers saw the advantage of funding pre-K for all, helping schools burdened with a higher percentage of low-income, special needs and non-English speaking students, raising teaching standards and so on. Now, the state’s governor does as well.
None of this is to suggest the coming years will be easy. It is one thing to promise excellence, even to understand the proven strategies needed to raise student performance, but it is another to manage this herculean task and sustain the financial commitment. Even now, there are legitimate concerns that the U.S. economy may slip into recession in the months ahead and states like Maryland that may have a budget surplus today, could be paddling in red ink one year from now. The new governor talks big and seems to understand that a decade-long commitment requires a decade-long commitment and that anything less is merely playing politics. But what happens when the going gets tough? When funding education requires shortchanging some other government ambition? When it runs counter to a Democratically controlled state legislature that now has far greater power to affect the budget than in years past? That will be the true test.
Still, the Blueprint plan has barely begun. In recent months, state education officials have been grappling with the most basic of questions involving equity, accountability and goals. What do the state’s 98,000 English learners need to be successful? Which schools are most burdened with concentrated poverty? How does one tell if a student is career or college ready? Average Marylanders don’t necessarily need to memorize the “five pillars” of the Blueprint to appreciate that something ambitious and important to Maryland’s future is now coming more sharply into focus. The new governor’s arrival does not guarantee success but it’s clear that it’s raised that probability enormously.
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