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Maryland education commission's ambitious proposal for new state aid for schools is delayed another year

A much-anticipated proposal to significantly increase state aid to Maryland’s local school systems has been delayed yet another year, to the dismay of many teachers, parents and education advocates.

Maryland Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and House of Delegates Speaker Michael Busch on Wednesday instructed the commission that has been studying increases to school funding — along with an ambitious array of new educational initiatives — to continue working through the fall of 2019.

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In a letter calling for the committee to work for a third year, Miller and Busch said the commission isn’t far enough along for major legislation to be submitted this year — and also noted Republican Gov. Larry Hogan’s resistance to the panel’s recommendation of nearly $4 billion a year in new spending.

“It appears we have more work to do to convince the governor that these generational changes are worth undertaking,” wrote Miller and Busch, both Democrats. “We understand it is virtually impossible for [new funding] formulas to be completed in time for action during the 2018 Legislative Session.”

After two years of studying how to transform Maryland’s schools into a “world class” education system, the Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education was widely expected to finish its work by Jan. 1.

Concerned its initial recommendations were too costly, the commission voted Wednesday to reduce the amount of money it was asking for from $4.4 billion annually to $3.8 billion. That increased funding would be phased in over 10 years.

The commission is also recommending that Maryland schools offer full-day education for 3-year-olds from low-income households and universal prekindergarten for 4-year-olds. It also wants the state to provide more money for schools where many students live in poverty, as well as to pay for raises and increased training for teachers statewide.

But the so-called Kirwan commission — nicknamed for its chairman, former University System of Maryland Chancellor William “Brit” Kirwan — has not come close to reaching agreement on funding formulas that would determine how much of the programs would be paid for by the state versus local jurisdictions. Lawmakers would need those details before they could vote on a plan.

“While the Commission will make significant policy and funding recommendations in its 2018 report, it will not be able to complete the funding formulas that will distribute [responsibility for] the increased education aid between the State and local jurisdictions,” Miller and Busch wrote.

Sean Johnson, legislative director of the state’s teacher union, said teachers were dismayed to learn they would have to wait another year for a significant boost in education funding.

"Educators are extremely disappointed with any further delay to end the underfunding of our schools,” Johnson said. “Our students move up grade levels every year and can't keep waiting. Marylanders expect real action and we will push for faster action until all our kids have the schools they deserve."

Despite the delay, state lawmakers are likely to provide $200 million in additional aid to school systems for the coming year. The governor and legislative leaders set aside money for that during the 2018 General Assembly session. The commission is recommending that money be used to start funding an expansion of prekindergarten, pay for half of a 3 percent raise for teachers, and hire community school coordinators and health practitioners in high-poverty schools, among other proposals.

State Sen. Bill Ferguson, a Baltimore Democrat who has watched the commission’s work closely, said he understood the reasons for the delay.

“I wish we could have made these reforms and investments yesterday, a year ago, a decade ago,” Ferguson said. “But we haven't because transformative changes aren't easy…. The 2019 Session provides Marylanders the opportunity to show that building a world class education system in our state for all children is an urgent priority.”

State Sen. Justin Ready, a Carroll County Republican, said Wednesday he believed the commission’s work was taking too long.

“County governments and school systems are waiting — and have been waiting for changes to formula and how things will be funded,” Ready said. “We seem to be getting a lot of big picture, pie in the sky education proposals coming out of this commission. But the formula of how the money would get to schools systems, not to mention concern about how to pay for it, has not been given proper focus.”

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Members of the 25-member commission are recommending state and local governments increase funding of education by $212 million next year, $1.5 billion in fiscal year 2021 and $2.6 billion in fiscal year 2022. By fiscal year 2030, the increase in funding would be $3.8 billion under the recommendations.

Amelia Chasse, a spokeswoman for Hogan, said the Republican governor “supports continuing to invest in our schools in a way that is fiscally responsible and incorporates strong accountability measures so students get the quality education they deserve.”

Chasse said Hogan “looks forward to working with the legislature to achieve this shared goal – it’s disappointing that the presiding officers are engaging in a blame game that flies in the face of the facts to cover for their ... committee failing to get the job done.”

Hogan recently announced a plan to fund $1.9 billion in school construction projects across the state, thanks in part to a new constitutional amendment that forces the addition of casino revenue to school funding. While announcing the plans for new capital funds, however, Hogan said he believed a preliminary price tag of recommendations from the commission was too high.

“No, we cannot afford that,” the governor said of an annual increase of about $4 billion to school funding. “They have not come up with any suggestions for where the additional revenue would come from. ... No, we’re not going to raise any of those taxes.”

The commission’s actions Wednesday came as members reviewed reports that argued that the Maryland districts with the most black and Latino students need significantly more funding.

Research by the nonprofit Education Trust found that Baltimore City and Prince George’s County are the most poorly funded compared to their needs.

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“The more students of color a district serves, the more underfunded the district is,” stated a report submitted to the commission by the Education Trust, which advocates for black and Latino students from low-income families.

A study conducted for state legislative analysts last year concluded Baltimore schools were funded adequately in 2008, but now are funded at just 81 percent of their needs. The city schools now receive $290 million less each year than what lawmakers had previously agreed they needed, the study said.

The Kirwan commission also is recommending creating an oversight board with the authority to make certain that new funds are used to implement its policy recommendations effectively.

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