Make Maryland education great again

Kevin Kamenetz: Md. needs "new resolve and leadership" to improve education.

Advocates for public school education should be on the alert. Betsy DeVos, President Trump's new education secretary, is a radical crusader for the anti-public education movement. Critics cite her staunch support of charter schools, her lack of professional qualifications and the fact that neither she nor her children ever attended public schools.

This follows the troubling trend in Maryland, where our once-vaunted public education system is under repeated attack.

Here's the truth: Education Week ranked our public school system No. 1 in the nation for five years in a row, but over the past two years Maryland has fallen to No. 5. When it comes to the achievement gap between low income and more affluent students, we rank 42nd — the 8th worst in the nation. The National Assessment of Educational Progress shows that 40 percent of our African American 8th graders are reading below the basic level compared to 13 percent of white students. This is unacceptable and cries out for new resolve and leadership.

For years Maryland's No. 1 rank was well-deserved. We funded education as if it were the most important component of our state's success. We weren't begging the governor to release funding for our neediest districts, our special needs students and non-English speakers. We didn't refer to our teachers' representatives as "thugs." And we certainly didn't make decisions to cut student learning days to sell more funnel cakes in Ocean City.

But that's where we are now. For those who need a reminder:

•In 2015, Gov. Larry Hogan withheld $68 million in education funding, shortchanging special education needs, causing educator layoffs, slashing course offerings and increasing class sizes.

•That year, he also proposed to lower standards for quality, accountability and equity in Maryland's charter schools. One of his bills would have siphoned funding away from public schools to charter schools, despite the fact that Maryland public schools face a $4.5 billion school construction backlog.

•In 2016, the governor withheld $25 million from public schools, and instead spent $40 million in corporate tax breaks benefiting two companies that aren't even adding jobs.

•Just last month the governor proposed a $42 million reduction in aid to Baltimore City Public Schools, while increasing aid to non-public schools. Mr. Hogan also proposed to exempt non-public schools from class size limits, text book rules and curriculum choices.

•And Governor Hogan's appointees to our school boards have proposed privatizing many public schools by converting them into for-profit charter schools or closing them altogether and issuing private school vouchers instead.

It's no wonder that respected professionals have resigned from state boards of education and school construction in protest of the governor's actions.

And that was just the first two years. Now, with a Trump presidency, and a DeVos Department of Education, we should expect a broader and deeper war on public education.

It is time for Maryland to stand up and say "no more."

We need to change this paradigm of the last two years suggesting that education funding is some sort of burden. In reality, education funding represents the most fundamental investment we make to improve the lives of our children, create long-term job growth and re-create the culture of quality education we are known for.

I propose an immediate end to the annual "begathon," where school superintendents are hauled to Annapolis to plead with Governor Hogan to fund school projects.

I call for an end to withholding public school funding hostage for corporate welfare giveaways.

And I call for a public outcry to stop the Trump and Hogan administrations from even considering moving Maryland toward a voucher-based school system.

Let us instead rebuild our schools, reduce testing hours, bring technology to our classrooms and provide competitive wages for our educators. Let's refocus our attention to improve our pre-K and after-school programs, identify and nurture our high performers and those who need extra help in the classroom. Let us plan now for what the next economy will require of our children and the investments we need to make to prepare them for that future.

This is Maryland. We can do better. We've done it before.

Kevin Kamenetz, a Democrat, has been Baltimore County Executive since 2010. He can be reached at Kevin@Baltimorecountymd.gov.

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