O'Malley's tuition pitch

Campaign Ad Watch



A campaign ad watch in Thursday's editions of The Sun should have included additional data when discussing a television ad for Mayor Martin O'Malley that claims that public school tuition in Maryland increased by 40 percent during Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s term. While the ad watch analysis discussed tuition and fees, tuition alone increased slightly less than 38 percent from 2002 to 2005.

In the latest television advertisement of his guber natorial campaign, Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Mal ley focuses on the cost of higher education in Maryland and suggests his administration will do more to keep tuition down. The 30-second spot blames his opponent, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., for tuition increases at the state's university system.

What the ad says: In what is perhaps the campaign's most whimsical advertisement yet, two children are seen in a living room, reaching for a University of Maryland diploma that hangs on the wall. The nar rator says, "These days, a college degree is just be yond the reach of too many Maryland families."

As the children step on a couch and reach around from a staircase to grab at the diploma, the narra tor says that the cost of college education has in creased "by over 40 percent" and that the state has received an "F" in college affordability.

"One leader has a plan to change that," the narra tor says as O'Malley appears on screen. "Freeze tui tion, increase scholarships and expand access and opportunity."

The facts: The language and sentence structure of the advertisement suggest to voters that O'Malley is committing to a tuition freeze if elected governor. The campaign is making no such promise, however. When the advertisement discusses a "tuition freeze," it is referring to a January news conference in which O'Malley called on Ehrlich to freeze tuition in the current budget year.

Earlier this year, Ehrlich described talk of a freeze as "hollow campaign rhetoric" and an "election-year gimmick," but he agreed to the freeze in this year's session of the General Assembly after more state money for higher education was found from other sources. O'Malley's campaign has offered no specific objectives for how tuition would change if he were elected.

O'Malley's claim that tuition has gone up more than 40 percent during the Ehrlich administration ap pears to be inflated. Tuition and fees at the Universi ty System of Maryland have increased, on average, just under 35 percent, from $4,926 in the 2002-2003 school year to $6,634 in the current year. Sharper increases have been realized at certain schools, such as the University of Maryland, College Park, where tuition and fees increased 39 percent.

Ehrlich aides note that tuition also rose under Gov. Parris N. Glendening, a Democrat. The governor does not set the state tuition rate. Instead, that re sponsibility falls to the system's Board of Regents. The board makes its decision on tuition, in part, based on funding that is set in the governor's bud get.

The "F" grade refers to a 2004 report by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, a nonpartisan research group. In addition to Mary land, the report gave an "F" grade to 35 other states and a grade of "C" or lower to an additional 13 states. Only one state, California, received a higher grade - and that was a "B."

Analysis: O'Malley's advertisement is the first in the campaign to focus exclusively on higher educa tion, an issue that will undoubtedly resonate with middle-class voters. Education is the most impor tant issue facing Maryland, according to a poll conducted recently for The Sun. The spot comes as Ehrlich has been hammering the mayor on another education issue - the city's schools.

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