Maryland business leaders should make education reform a priority, call on governor for support

Gov. Larry Hogan announced two proposals Thursday aimed at increasing investment and accountability in schools. And we say kudos for turning his attention to what can be done to improve Maryland education, rather than limiting his focus to what he believes can’t be done — namely raising taxes.

The first proposal appears to build upon the legislature’s Protect Our Schools Act, which he vetoed in 2017 and lawmakers later overrode (for the record: The Sun’s editorial board backed the veto; we found the act too meddlesome in school board business). The governor’s new version, named the Community and Local Accountability for Struggling Schools (CLASS) Act, would designate schools that receive one-star ratings for two consecutive years “Innovation Schools” and further allow local communities to “take charge” and implement turnaround plans.


And the second brings back his Building Opportunity Fund, which members of the legislature rejected during this year’s session but seem to have embraced since then. It would provide up to $3.8 billion for school construction by issuing bonds that would be paid back using a portion of casino revenue set aside for education and represents a rare — and welcome — area of common ground with Democratic leaders in the General Assembly, who have put forth a similar plan for consideration in the 2020 session.

Each of Governor Hogan’s proposals is thus far light on details, and we look forward to learning more about them in the new year. But the governor must do more than bolster earlier ideas if he’s going to truly make education his “administration’s highest priority,” as he says it is, and work toward giving “every single child in Maryland” the “world-class education” he acknowledges they deserve — “regardless of what neighborhood they happen to grow up in."


Specifically, he’s going to have to sincerely discuss how best to implement and pay for sweeping recommendations from the Kirwan Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education, which he’s cynically dubbed the “Kirwan Tax Hike Commission.”

In an email message Friday, a spokesman said the governor was set to “meet in the coming days” with Sen. Bill Ferguson, a member of the Kirwan Commission and the Baltimore Democrat set to become Senate president next month. Senator Ferguson had earlier commended the governor for “shifting the conversation about what’s possible for us to accomplish together," and we’re cautiously optimistic something productive could result from their getting together.

After all, what goes on inside the classroom, the purview of Kirwan, is even more important than construction of the classroom itself, and we want the governor’s honest input. He won election in 2014 promising to eliminate “waste, fraud and abuse” in government, and that kind of eye toward accountability is necessary to ensure Kirwan doesn’t become another Thornton education boondoggle, with significant spending increases that don’t correspond to a similar boost in student achievement.

The price tag for Kirwan is big, there’s no denying it. After a 10-year phase in, state and local governments would be spending an additional $4 billion on education by fiscal year 2030 — $2.8 billion from the state and $1.2 billion from local municipalities. Some counties (Allegany, Calvert, Carroll, Charles, Howard, Queen Anne’s, St. Mary’s and Somerset) won’t have to adjust their spending at all, according to projections, because they already spend more than state law requires. But some regions — Baltimore City and Prince George’s County, in particular — will be hit hard.

And while most Marylanders support the idea of spending more money on education, the reality is likely to be at least somewhat painful until the return on investment starts rolling in (financial benefits are expected to exceed costs beginning in fiscal year 2034, according to a study by the Sage Policy Group, commissioned by Strong Schools Maryland).

So, we understand why the governor is beating the anti-tax drum. Raising taxes is rarely a successful strategy for a Republican, and Mr. Hogan is duty bound to push back. But it’s also not good policy for a Republican leader to saddle the state’s business community with an undereducated, underprepared and under-skilled workforce. And that’s where we’re headed.

As Kirwan Commission members noted in their January interim report outlining their policy recommendations “when it comes to actual student learning, Maryland schools perform at a mediocre level in a country that performs at a mediocre level internationally.” Fewer than 40% of our students are graduating high school either college or career ready.

That’s an appalling figure, and the state’s business leaders should be leading the charge to turn it around, calling on the governor to do everything in his power to usher in a reversal and add more weight to his “open for business” philosophy. After all, it’s not just the governor who should make education a top priority; it’s everyone.