For decades, Maryland lawmakers have built up public education through spending requirements that they've imposed on themselves and on local governments. But this year, more seriously than ever, the General Assembly is looking for ways to nip at school funding.
There's broad agreement among lawmakers that the depth and length of the national economic downturn means the time has come to review this previously untouchable part of the budget - which accounts for about 20 percent of state spending.
Del. John L. Bohanan Jr., a Democrat and chairman of the House of Delegates education budget subcommittee, said the economy has forced the General Assembly to consider changes to education funding that "12 months ago would never have even been up for discussion.
"Now we're looking at these drastic measures that may be needed to balance the budget," he said.
Lawmakers last week heard proposals to ease the process by which local governments can waive education spending requirements written into state law. At the same time, ideas are circulating about how to decrease state funding of education. Republican senators have pitched erasing incentive pay for teachers in areas affected by high crime and high cost of living, and Sen. President Thomas V. Mike Miller, a Democrat, wants to shift part of the burden of teacher pensions to counties.
Legislative leaders acknowledge they are timidly treading into dangerous territory. Maryland's public education system is top-ranked nationally and features some of the best schools in the country, and lawmakers attribute the accolades to their financial investments.
In the past decade, the state has more than doubled its K-12 education funding annually to about $5.7 billion, and, in the past four years, has committed to a record $1 billion in school construction, said House Speaker Michael E. Busch, a Democrat and former high school teacher.
"That's been the one area completely protected in the budget," Busch said. But he acknowledged that either this year or next, lawmakers will have to find a way to manage some of the spiraling costs of education, particularly teacher pensions.
The 2002 adoption of the school funding formula known as the Thornton plan has caused much of that growth. Last year, Gov. Martin O'Malley proposed $69 million in cuts to K-12 education, but federal stimulus money plugged those holes - both for this fiscal year and next, enabling lawmakers to delay addressing teacher pensions and other state education funding issues for another year. Saving that debate for next year has another advantage for sitting lawmakers: All 188 of them are up for election this fall.
But efforts to make it easier for local governments to decrease their spending on schools have gained traction this year.
One proposal, by Sen. Edward J. Kasemeyer, would force the state school board to consider, among other factors, a sour economy and a county's history of education funding when deciding whether to allow the county to spend less on schools than it did the previous year. Another, co-sponsored by two dozen delegates, would waive local spending requirements altogether for only next year.
"It's a big move, philosophically, for us," said Kasemeyer, a Howard County Democrat and state lawmaker for most of the past three decades. "This is the first time I can remember that we're looking at what everybody thought was a basic obligation and commitment."
Kasemeyer said his plan, which encountered no opposition at a Senate hearing Wednesday, is necessary because the down economy has revealed problems with a long-standing county spending requirement called "maintenance of effort." Local governments must increase their contribution to schools each year, according to certain formulas, to qualify for state aid to education or risk losing part of it.
Until last year, no school district had applied for a waiver from the requirement in 15 years.
Three frustrated county executives testified at the Wednesday hearing that the state school board had set waiver requirements far too high, seemingly making only the total collapse of a tax base as reason enough to grant one.
"None of us are proud of ourselves for being here," said Wicomico County Executive Richard M. Pollitt Jr. "But these are unprecedented times, and we've cut our other departments so drastically. We have to open other doors that have been kept closed. We've put off cutting education as long as we can."
Wicomico, Prince George's and Montgomery counties each asked the state school board last year to waive their spending requirement, though the former two were able to find enough funding in the end. Montgomery did not.
"We made a powerful case, and it was denied," said Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett, who noted his county was able to come up with "99 percent" of the requirement. And, in previous years, he said, the county spent millions more than was required by law. He called the waiver process confusing and unfair.
Because of the school board's denial, Montgomery schools are to be docked $24 million in state funding this year. The state Senate last week overwhelmingly approved legislation to waive that penalty, a proposal the House of Delegates is also expected to pass.
But Michael Sanderson, director of the Maryland Association of Counties, said Montgomery's experience pointed to the need for a "release valve" in tough economic times such as these. "We know this is going to be another rough year," he said.
Schools advocates, including the ACLU of Maryland and the Baltimore Education Coalition, say they understand that the waiver requirements need to be more clearly defined, but they're fearful that a more sweeping House proposal may pass.
Sponsored mostly by Democrats in Montgomery and Prince George's counties, the bill allows any county or Baltimore to have a one-year exemption from the "maintenance of effort" requirement and does not provide for any minimum level of local education spending.
"We just don't think it's a good idea to allow counties and the city to unilaterally and independently reduce their school spending," said Sue Fothergill, co-chairwoman of the Baltimore Education Coalition.
The ACLU of Maryland also worries that lawmakers, in their desperate search for budget cuts, will consider some of the ideas that the Department of Legislative Services presented Thursday to a Senate budget subcommittee. Analysts said the state could save $60 million by shifting 7 percent of teacher pension costs to the counties or cutting education aid to the wealthiest areas.
"This is not the time to turn back funding," said Bebe Verdery, director of ACLU of Maryland's Education Reform Project. "This is the time to hold the line."
Miller, the Senate president, is again promoting a plan to hold counties responsible for the pensions of new teachers and teachers who receive raises. He said Maryland is one of three states that pay for local teachers' pensions, a system he called "completely unsustainable."
"The fire bell is clanging in the night," he said, "And we're in dereliction of our duty to the state if we continue to ignore it."
Some lawmakers want to go even further. Shifting half the burden of teacher pensions, as Senate Republicans have proposed, would save the state $450 million but it also would overwhelm the budgets of financially strapped counties.
Busch predicted debate about pensions and other education funding formulas, such as one that pumps extra money into low-income and high cost-of-living areas, would be reserved for next year, after federal stimulus money has run dry.
"It's a discussion we need to have, quite candidly," Busch said, "and soon."