Our view: Education funding, while not yet a factor on the campaign trail, will be a dominant question for the next governor and General Assembly
The candidates in Maryland's increasingly crowded race for governor have spent a lot of time recently denouncing President Donald Trump's efforts to repeal Obamacare. Even Gov. Larry Hogan has gotten into the act, repeatedly voicing his opposition to his own party's efforts. There are political reasons for that — it's a good bet that opposing all things Trump will be a solid electoral strategy in Maryland — and legitimate policy ones, too. But there's another issue that has largely been flying under the radar that will have a profound impact on whoever occupies Government House come 2019: Maryland education funding.
This week, the Maryland Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education — better known as the Kirwan Commission, for the name of its chairman, former University System of Maryland Chancellor William E. "Brit" Kirwan — held another meeting to flesh out some of the policy goals and strategies it might adopt. Among the major topics of discussion was a comparison of how Maryland's system of school funding compares to those of other top states and nations, with consultants outlining several recommendations for how we could do better.
Among other things, they noted that Maryland does particularly poorly on spending equity — that is to say, Maryland is near the bottom of the states in terms of how much extra support goes to students in high poverty districts. Perhaps not coincidentally, Maryland has much larger disparities in teacher quality between low-poverty and high-poverty schools than our peer states in measures like the percentages of new teachers, highly qualified teachers and teachers without certification.
Marylandreporter.com's Len Lazarick reports that some of the consultant's ideas for addressing those gaps, such as incentive pay for teachers, were immediately controversial. Others, such as a proposal to eliminate a feature of Maryland's school funding formula that sends extra money to districts with a high cost of living, assuredly would be if the commission recommended them.
But beyond the question of any particular policy the commission might discuss is an over-arching truth about the effort: There appears to be virtually no chance that the final report will recommend spending the same amount or less on public schools than we do now. Every indication is that the commission's report is going to call for increasing state and local contributions to education, perhaps as significantly as the Thornton Commission did 15 years ago.
Late last year, another set of consultants recommended that state and local governments spend an additional $2.9 billion on public schools, an amount that made even Democratic lawmakers on the panel blanch. And although the message last week from Marc Tucker of the National Center on Education and the Economy was that "money matters, but how it is spent matters greatly," the overall idea that Maryland should spend more remains. He suggested increasing the funding formula weight for special education students, enacting stricter rules to force counties to contribute their fair share, adding state funds for high-poverty districts, providing more support for early childhood education and wrap-around supports and services for vulnerable children, among other ideas, none of which are free. Theoretically, the state could offset the costs of some of those new investments by reducing aid to wealthier districts, but the history of Thornton suggests that's politically untenable.
Not everything the commission is discussing has to do with funding. It is also looking at policies and practices from the most successful states and nations related to student standards, professional certification, curriculum, tenure and other policies. But virtually all of them involve trade-offs and competing interests, and they need to be part of the political dialogue, too.
The idea that Maryland will soon be spending more on its public schools has become subtly baked into the political discourse both among Democratic lawmakers and Governor Hogan. The discussion in this year's legislative session about providing more aid to Baltimore City schools to help stave off the effects of a projected budget shortfall was predicated on the assumption that the state and city governments would each make three-year commitments. The reason for that time frame was to provide what all involved referred to as a "bridge to Kirwan" — itself a tacit acknowledgment that "Kirwan" means "more money."
We don't know, of course, what the Kirwan Commission will recommend or what it will cost. But to put things in some context, the state share of the $2.9 billion consultants recommended last year would cost Maryland more than a repeal of the Affordable Care Act's Medicaid expansion.
Much is uncertain in politics and government, but the Kirwan Commission's report is due by Dec. 31, and we can safely assume that deciding whether and how to implement its recommendations will be one of the dominant issues facing the next governor and General Assembly. One gubernatorial candidate, state Sen. Richard S. Madaleno Jr., a Montgomery County Democrat, is a member of the commission, but it should be a top concern for them all. The state is hardly flush with cash now, and we've already pulled the magic revenue lever of legalizing casinos. Save for legalizing marijuana — a "pot for tots" law, if you will — there are no more easy sources of money. Will meeting the Maryland constitution's requirement that the state provide an adequate public education require higher taxes or cuts to other programs? That's a conversation we should start having now.