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Schools and breaking the 'piggyback'

Maryland's constitution mandates that every student have access to an adequate (indeed, "thorough" is how it's described) education. Court cases have backed this up, and the state legislature's response was the Bridge to Excellence in Education Act, more commonly known as the "Thornton" funding that ensured even the state's poorest jurisdictions had enough money for K-12 schools.

Crucial to this transfer of tax dollars from the state to local school systems was the assurance that Baltimore and the 23 counties would maintain their share of that financial responsibility, too. Otherwise, the $1.3 billion in Thornton assistance would not provide a boost to schools but merely give local governments an opportunity to slack.

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Specifically, that assurance is provided by the state's "maintenance of effort" law that requires local government to spend as much on education on a per-pupil basis as they did the year before. The penalty? A loss in state funds.

But the problem with that penalty has been twofold: first, that it's gotten less onerous as state spending on education has reached a plateau; and second, that it penalizes under-funded school systems, not local governments. Already, a handful of counties have willfully violated the maintenance of effort law — and more may follow suit if reforms are not adopted.

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That leads us to the legislation introduced this week in the House of Delegates to put some more teeth in maintenance of effort. To the extent it holds local governments more accountable, it's great. However, lawmakers may be putting at least one incisor too many in the bill.

First, the good part. Under the proposal, the state would have authority to tap into local government's income tax revenue (known as the "piggyback" tax) to make up any shortfall in maintenance of effort obligations. That would leave school systems whole and penalize the real perpetrators — the county executives, councils and commissioners who failed to meet their financial obligations.

Local governments are bound to howl about this, particularly at a time when the state is contemplating shifting teacher pension costs to them. Local leaders have long complained that other vital government services — police and fire protection, for instance — are put at risk when they are compelled to fund education to a certain minimum level, regardless of expected revenues (while lacking the authority to impose cost savings on schools).

Yet counties are all too happy to take advantage of the economic prosperity made possible by successful school systems as more affluent families gravitate to those jurisdictions with great public schools. Maryland's top ranking in Education Week magazine (for a fourth straight year) has been credited, in large part, to its school funding formula. That's not something that should be compromised by local leaders who see schools as someone else's responsibility.

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But here, lawmakers may have gone too far. The bill would also give local governments the authority to ignore existing property tax caps if the tax revenue in question would be spent on maintaining adequate funding of public schools.

That's extraordinary. In one fell swoop, the Maryland General Assembly could largely nullify the wishes of voters in those charter counties that have adopted tax caps. While we are generally opposed to such caps — as they can force counties to adopt more regressive taxes and fees that can hit middle-class families hard while protecting the interests of wealthier landowners — we think the wishes of voters in those jurisdictions ought to be respected.

Certainly, it's not necessary for the cause of adequate funding for schools; they can be made whole when the state diverts piggyback revenue to them. But it's also clear that many lawmakers (and more than a few in local government) would like nothing more than to moderate the effect of property tax caps.

If so, they should address the matter directly. If a county's residents want strict limits on property taxes, that's fine, but they should have to live with the consequence of lower-quality public services. But the state mandates a quality education, so that is one service on which they do not have the choice to skimp. The same is not true of police protection, parks, trash pickup or any number of other services local governments provide. If a county's residents would rather have lower taxes and a less responsive fire department, it is not up to the state government to relieve them of the folly of their choice.

But with seven of Maryland's 24 jurisdictions failing to meet the maintenance of effort law this year, it's clear the rule needs to be reinforced. If that trend continues, the gains made by Thornton since 2002 could all but be erased. That would be disastrous for Maryland's future — not to mention costly for taxpayers.

And those jurisdictions that believe their circumstances are so extraordinary that they can't meet their obligations to their schools (or afford to lose income tax revenue) can still apply for a one-year waiver from the Maryland State Board of Education. That's reasonable. For local leaders to simply ignore the maintenance of effort law is not.

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