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Goucher poll: Kirwan school proposals popular, but half of Marylanders think taxes are already ‘too high’

William "Brit" Kirwan, who led the Kirwan Commission for education reform, testifies at the joint hearing on the legislation Feb. 17 in Annapolis.
William "Brit" Kirwan, who led the Kirwan Commission for education reform, testifies at the joint hearing on the legislation Feb. 17 in Annapolis.(Amy Davis)

Marylanders overwhelmingly support the programs to improve public schools proposed by the state’s Kirwan Commission, but roughly half of state residents believe they already pay taxes that are “too high,” according to a new Goucher College poll.

In a survey conducted Feb. 13 to Feb. 18, 93% of respondents said they support more vocational training in public schools; 85% said they believe public school teachers are paid too little; and 69% said they believe public schools are underfunded. Addressing those issues are some of the goals of the so-called Kirwan Commission, which has studied for several years how best to improve public education in the state.

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But the poll found that Marylanders are less enthusiastic about raising taxes to pay for the education overhaul, which would cost about $4 billion a year when phased in by 2030.

Fifty-one percent of respondents told the Goucher College pollsters their taxes are already “too high,” while 44% said their tax obligation is “about right." Only 3% said their taxes are “too low.”

Even as Marylanders generally like the ideas proposed by the commission, most haven’t heard of the commission’s name or studied its work, the poll found: 69% of respondents said they had read “nothing at all” about the task force.

“While the public continues to be largely unaware of the Kirwan Commission itself, large majorities of Marylanders recognize that public schools are facing the very problems its recommendations were designed to address," said Mileah Kromer, director of the Sarah T. Hughes Field Politics Center at Goucher, which conducted the poll. “Residents across party lines largely agree that public schools need more vocational training and better-paid public school teachers.”

Kromer added: "Our results suggest that the costs of the Kirwan recommendations, rather than the merits of the plan, will be of concern to Marylanders.”

The telephone poll of 713 Marylanders had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.7 percentage points.

Democratic lawmakers in the General Assembly are supporting the Kirwan Commission’s recommendations for sweeping legislation meant to boost Maryland’s public schools to the “world-class levels" of those in Finland, Singapore and other leading education countries and states.

The Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education, as it is formally called, is recommending expanding prekindergarten to more students, enhanced standards and higher salaries for teachers, improved college- and career-prep programs in high schools, and more support for schools with high concentrations of students from poor families. The reforms would make the starting salary for teachers $60,000 a year.

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The state is expected to cover about $2.6 billion of the annual costs of the overhaul, while local jurisdictions as a whole would need to come up with about $1.3 billion combined by 2030.

To pay for the overhaul, lawmakers are considering an array of options: bills that would apply the sales tax to digital goods such as e-books and downloaded songs, create a new tax on digital advertising, and increase the tax on tobacco and nicotine products. They’re also weighing whether to legalize sports gambling as a way to raise money.

Marylanders are divided about the sports betting proposal, the poll showed. About 47% of respondents said they support legalizing sports betting online, with 43% opposed. At the same time, 49% oppose legalizing sports betting at stadiums, racetracks and casinos, while 45% support that idea.

This week, Democratic leaders in the House of Delegates proposed legislation to expand the state’s sales tax to professional services as a way to bring in billions more to pay for the education overhaul. The bill’s lead sponsor, Del. Eric Luedtke of Montgomery County, said the legislation would raise $2.6 billion more by 2025, enough to cover the full state portion of implementing the Kirwan recommendations.

The chief critic of the commission, Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, immediately blasted the sales tax proposal, arguing “it would destroy our economy."

The Goucher poll didn’t test the sales tax idea, but did ask about the popularity of both Hogan and the Democratic-controlled General Assembly.

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Its results show Hogan maintains a strong approval rating: 62% of Marylanders approve of his performance as governor with 20% disapproving. Meanwhile, 41% of Marylanders approve of the General Assembly, while 27% disapprove of the legislature’s performance. Other respondents said they didn’t know enough to have an opinion.

“They’re both above water,” Kromer said of the governor and the legislature. “The people who can rate them like them more than dislike them.”

Despite the intense debate over education, the poll found it’s only the second most important issue to Marylanders. In the poll, 20% of Marylanders say crime is the most important issue facing the state today, while 17% said their top issue is education and 15% said the economy.

Goucher also asked Marylanders whether they were happy, and ― happily ― 91% said they are “very or pretty” happy. Only 8% said they are “not too happy.”

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