The Howard County school board made significant cuts from Superintendent Michael Martirano’s budget out of concern that the resources he says are necessary are beyond the county’s means. County Executive Calvin Ball says even the reduced request is “a big challenge … to fund without significantly raising taxes or cutting other critical services.”
Most of the conversation about increased school funding that has accompanied the findings of the Kirwan Commission has centered on Baltimore City, and for good reason. Its needs are far more profound than any other jurisdiction — for example, it has nearly as many students in schools with extreme concentrations of poverty (more than 80 percent eligibility for free- and reduced-price meals) as the rest of the state put together. But the struggle to provide the adequate education Maryland’s constitution requires for all students isn’t just a Baltimore problem. Increasingly, the suburbs are having a hard time keeping up with their needs — and in some cases, notably Harford, they are at risk of regressing.
The General Assembly is working on taking some preliminary steps to implement the Kirwan recommendations even in advance of its finalization of new funding formulas, which is expected this fall. Among the goals for the year are increased support for special education students, grants to address concentrations of poverty, matching funds for teacher raises and start-up funding for an oversight board to provide accountability for the new spending. That means finding about $125 million more than Gov. Larry Hogan set aside for enhanced school funding in next year’s budget — not easy, but doable.
Things get much harder after that, though. Full implementation of Kirwan would mean an increase in education spending over current levels of $3.8 billion a year a decade from now, a tab that would be split between the state and local governments in a manner yet to be determined.
It should be clear by now that local governments’ capacity to support education is tapped out under current fiscal realities. The state is not in much better shape. Though Governor Hogan was able to balance his fiscal 2020 budget proposal with little difficulty, his budget department is predicting a nearly $6 billion gap between available revenues and projected spending over the subsequent four years.
Maryland’s school systems are at a turning point. We can adopt the Kirwan reforms and produce a system that will rank among the world’s best, or we can accept a steady backsliding toward mediocrity or worse. The Kirwan Commission’s findings tell us that excellence is possible, but it will take a monumental effort to build political support in every county for the sacrifices necessary to achieve it. Only Governor Hogan has the standing to do that. The latest Goucher Poll shows he has a 69 percent job approval rating — just slightly above the 64 percent who say Maryland spends too little on public education. The legislature has a crucial role to play here. So do county executives and advocacy groups like the teachers union. But Governor Hogan needs to take the lead.