A proposed formula that would apportion some $4 billion in new annual spending by 2030 — the amount endorsed by the Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education — has produced jitters in parts of the state. Democrats in Baltimore and some counties have balked at the prospect of major increases in public school funding — read: higher taxes — to supplement new state spending.
They’re right to be skeptical. While most Marylanders want improved K-12 education, and many say they are willing to pay for it, the details are daunting when one drills down into virtually any plan that would generate new spending on the order of magnitude recommended by the commission. The evidence to support the view that more money ensures better educational outcomes is mixed, in Maryland and elsewhere.
No doubt, public schools in many parts of the state need improvement. The 25-member Kirwan education commission, named for the former chancellor of the University System of Maryland, William E. “Brit” Kirwan, did Marylanders a service by debunking the canard that the state’s schools were among the nation’s best — a designation refuted by what the commission called “actual student learning.” However, the last time the state embarked on an ambitious school spending spree, the results were unimpressive and included bureaucratic bloat.
It’s reasonable to debate whether this time would be different as lawmakers weigh a program to prioritize free preschool for all 4-year-olds; a push to help poor and special-needs students; more career training and college preparation for high-schoolers; and higher standards for teachers.
Part of that debate should include who pays, and how much. Democrats have floated the ideas of taxing sports betting, and legalizing and taxing marijuana, among other potential revenue sources, but that would generate a modest amount. Even a 10 percent increase in the state income tax, which would cost most Marylanders several hundred dollars more annually, would cover perhaps half the state’s portion of the total bill — and it’s doubtful a majority of voters would tolerate such an increase.
Democrats contend that raiding other priorities, along with overall economic growth would generate much of the money. More realistically, perhaps, a panel of the Kirwan commission has proposed a formula that would require localities to chip in, a painful proposition. Baltimore would be expected to double its annual school spending, to $662 million, by 2030. Prince George’s County and other suburban jurisdictions would also face steep bills. Gov. Larry Hogan (R) calls such increases “pie in the sky”; in political terms, he’s probably right.
Better to focus on targeted areas likely to produce more bang for the education buck, including offering alternatives (such as charter schools) to students floundering in failing schools, and stringent means of identifying, nurturing and rewarding the best teachers. Marylanders, who already face one of the highest tax burdens in the United States, need cost-effective means of getting better schools.