William E. "Brit" Kirwan, chair of the Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education, explains the Kirwan Commissions recommendations for Maryland's public schools. (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore Sun video)
As tempting as it may be to look south to the riches of alternative facts spewing out of Donald Trump this week (if he’s troubled by the lack of Kurdish assistance provided the U.S. at Normandy, wait until he hears about what Germany, Italy and Japan were up to during World War II), there was some impressive fact manipulation emanating from our own Gov. Larry Hogan. Not on the subject of impeachment, mind you. On that, he was actually quite the Dr. Jekyll, politely telling a group at Georgetown University on Monday that the whistleblower complaint raised some troubling questions for which Congress needed to find answers. No, it took a dose of Kirwan Commission and the prospect of spending more money on Maryland’s public schools to transform him into a raging Governor Hyde.
The Kirwan Commission’s funding work group is discussing how to increase funding for Maryland’s public schools. Decisions on final recommendations expected next week. This will be a big debate in the 2020 General Assembly session. pic.twitter.com/4qIHF1Ir9c
“They’re at it again,” began the governor’s Wednesday morning post on Facebook. “The same politicians that raised your taxes 43 consecutive times during the O’Malley years have been meeting in secret to raise your taxes.” Now, there’s an impressive amount of misleading information squeezed into such a small space. First, there’s the matter of raising taxes 43 times, a gross exaggeration of Gov. Martin O’Malley’s tenure that has been refuted before. (What’s next? More circa 2014 claims about a rain tax revival?) Then there’s the Kirwan Commission, as its members don’t actually include Mr. O’Malley who has been out of office for nearly five years but do include Mr. Hogan’s current budget and education secretaries. The Facebook screed goes on to accuse Kirwan of potentially causing a “staggering 535% increase in the property tax” which, of course, it won’t for any number of reasons, not the least of which is nobody is even talking about touching property taxes.
That Governor Hogan is really, really resistant to Kirwan Commission reforms and most especially any increase in spending on schools isn’t new. But the degree to which he’s willing to embrace alternative facts, spouting the most misleading of statistics to make it sound like Maryland schools (and teachers in particular) are flush with ill-gotten tax dollars can be staggering. What happens to that even-tempered, affable chap, who sees merit in an impeachment inquiry into a fellow Republican, to turn him into a walking, talking Batman villain when the discussion shifts to public education in Maryland? He’s about a dollop of clown makeup away from his own Joker impersonation.
Here’s one of the fake numbers the governor seems to adore most: “Baltimore has the third highest funded schools in the nation” or some variation of that. There’s a nugget of truth in that, in much the same way that Maryland could be said to be identical to Virginia because they have the same number of letters. The Census Bureau reports that of the 100 largest school districts, Baltimore had the third highest per-pupil spending in 2017. Yet there are thousands of school districts across the U.S. with higher per-pupil spending. And what does that even mean? Per-pupil spending mostly reveals local cost-of-living in any particular area as teacher pay is the biggest driver of costs. Central Maryland school systems should rank high given the state’s high median household income or there’s something seriously amiss. Compare Maryland education spending (not top 10 the nation) with cost-of-living (top five on that list, thank you very much) and then maybe the governor would be on to something.
It’s all very well to question whether education dollars are spent wisely. That’s a worthwhile cause any day of the week (like whether costly temporary air conditioning units for schools slated to be torn down is a smart use of limited capital funds just to name one random example). But attacking a Kirwan “tax increase” when the work group hasn’t even recommended how to finance reforms is crazy partisan. Added together the full package of reforms might cost $3.8 billion as they are phased in over 10 years. Ten years. But Mr. Hogan doesn’t want a calm, rational conversation about whether Maryland families want their kids’ schools to be adequately funded, he wants to make Kirwan the rain tax of 2020, raising dark money for campaign ads to scare people into believing spending more on educator training, greater access to pre-K instruction, and providing for teacher salaries capable of attracting the best and brightest to the profession is a terrifying possibility. As that tweeting fellow in Washington, D.C., with a “Liddle’” fixation of his own might say: Sad.