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Federal government needs to help pay for Maryland education improvements too | COMMENTARY

Dorien Smith, left, tries to stand in the "tree" yoga pose during the Kids Health Fair at Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Elementary last year. The health fair, put on by University of Maryland Schools of Social Work and School of Medicine, was intended to improve wellness among youth in the Promise Heights neighborhood of West Baltimore.
Dorien Smith, left, tries to stand in the "tree" yoga pose during the Kids Health Fair at Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Elementary last year. The health fair, put on by University of Maryland Schools of Social Work and School of Medicine, was intended to improve wellness among youth in the Promise Heights neighborhood of West Baltimore. (Gabriella Demczuk/Baltimore Sun)

The Historic Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Elementary School serves 260 students in the Upton/Druid Heights neighborhood of West Baltimore. I’ve seen their dedicated teachers and staff engage and inspire their students. They bring passion and wisdom to their work every day.

The school’s impact reaches well beyond academics. It’s a neighborhood hub — an enriching, safe place to gather and learn. In addition, it’s also making academic improvements on the state report card. As a “community school" it works with University of Maryland’s School of Social Work to address needs identified by local families — from prenatal health and trauma services, to providing a beautiful library.

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But like many other schools, especially in high-poverty areas, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor still faces serious obstacles. For too long, they haven’t had adequate support for initiatives like increasing after-school programs, reducing class sizes, properly paying educators and giving extra support to students who need it most. We must all pull together to fix this.

The Maryland General Assembly is stepping up in a big way with their Blueprint for Maryland’s Future — visionary legislation to implement the recommendations of the state’s Kirwan Commission on improving education through increased funding and holding schools accountable for results.

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The Blueprint builds on landmark legislation passed by the General Assembly in 2002 in response to the forerunner to Kirwan, the Thornton Commission. Thornton identified serious inequities in the state’s school funding formulas. As a member of the Maryland Senate at the time, I worked with colleagues to implement Thornton’s recommendations by boosting mandatory funding for education in Baltimore City and throughout the state, focusing on areas of greatest need.

The Thornton Commission legislation helped make Maryland schools among the nation’s very best, as measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress. But some gaps persisted, and as funding stagnated, we slipped. Now, we must adopt the Blueprint to ensure a bright future for all students.

As the state does its job, the federal government must too. For decades, Congress has made two big promises to our students:

The first, known as Title I, is designed to address the massive inequality that arises from funding our schools based on local property taxes. Extra federal assistance for lower-income neighborhoods is meant to ensure a child's zip code doesn't limit his or her future.

The second promise is to provide every child — no matter their ability — with an education that meets their unique needs. Congress long ago promised to pay 40 percent of that cost, under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

Shamefully, Congress has never honored these two promises.

Every year, we fall a whopping $33 billion short on Title I and $20 billion short on IDEA. These shortfalls impose huge financial burdens on communities, especially those with low property tax bases. But there is legislation to fix this.

Inspired by Maryland’s mandatory education funding established by the Thornton legislation, I introduced the federal Keep Our PACT Act. This bill would steadily close the funding gaps in Title I and IDEA over the next 10 years, and reinforce reforms and accountability provisions Congress passed in the Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015. It would also make these funding commitments permanent so that — like Medicare — they are not subject to the yearly whims of Congress.

Had this law been in place earlier, Maryland alone would have received an additional $5 billion for school funding cumulatively between 2005 and 2017.

This was the first bill I introduced upon joining Congress in 2003, and I’ve introduced it in every Congress since. It’s taken too long, but with educators, parents and communities across the country rising up to fight for their students, the bill has fresh momentum. It’s supported by 19 senators, including three presidential candidates, and 64 bipartisan cosponsors in the House. It is also a top priority for education and civil rights groups nationally, including the National Education Association, American Federation of Teachers, NAACP, National Urban League and National PTA.

We need to recommit ourselves to this fight. In America, every child should get an education that empowers them to reach their dreams. And we should honor teachers and all educators for the critical role they play in our democracy.

As the Maryland General Assembly and local governments work to pass and fund the Kirwan Blueprint, I will push for as long as it takes to get the federal government to meet its commitments.

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Together, we can keep our promises to our children.

Together, we can Keep Our PACT.

Chris Van Hollen (assistance@vanhollen.senate.gov) is a U.S. Senator for Maryland and a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

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