A commitment for the future

Our view: Through good times and bad, Md. has maintained funding for K-12 education

May 10, 2010

As constant as the talk about budget cuts in Annapolis has been during the last few years — and as dire as the situation looks for the next few — it is worth noting that Maryland has maintained one priority over all others: K-12 education. Maryland's constitution guarantees every student a quality education, and during both Republican and Democratic administrations in the last eight years, the state has made an extraordinary effort to provide it, even at the expense of other worthy programs. The result is that while as many as 40 other states plan to lay off teachers in the coming school year, Maryland does not, and many districts here are even hiring.

California might cut as many as 26,000 teaching positions next year. New York is cutting 13,000; Illinois, 9,800; New Jersey, 6,500. The city of Detroit alone could lose as many as 2,000 teachers — 40 percent of its total. And layoffs aren't the only problem. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Arizona is cutting preschool for more than 4,000 students. Georgia is eliminating more than $100 million meant to close funding gaps between rich and poor school districts. Massachusetts cut Head Start, universal pre-kindergarten and early intervention to help special needs students. Virginia cut $700 million over the next two years that, among other things, would have gone to reduce class sizes.

Maryland's school districts aren't totally immune to the budget problems facing every state and local government in the nation. In particular, Montgomery County has sought and received a waiver from the fine the state typically imposes on districts that do not maintain their level of funding for K-12 education from one year to the next, and it is a special case in that it has consistently well exceeded its required funding levels during good years. Generally, though, the state has been reluctant to release districts from their "maintenance of effort" requirements. Legislation that would have loosened the criteria for such waivers died at the end of the spring General Assembly session because of technical problems, but even it would have only slightly expanded the factors the state may consider.

That strong commitment to maintaining the level of education funding from one year to the next, even in bad times, is poised to make Maryland's educational system even stronger compared with our competitor states. The Sun's Liz Bowie reported today that the stable climate in Maryland is leading to a flurry of applications by experienced teachers from other states for jobs here. That means we will not only maintain the smaller class sizes that have helped boost student achievement in recent years but that the teachers in those classrooms will be better.

Some cuts to education are probably inevitable and may even be preferable to the alternatives, depending on how deep and protracted the state budget crisis becomes. Demanding a no-cuts-to-schools policy could force dire reductions for health, public safety and other important priorities. But Maryland's last two governors have wisely shown that funding education is their most important responsibility.

When he took office amid severe budget shortfalls in 2003, former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. made millions in cuts to state spending. Gov. Martin O'Malley has been forced to cut even more. Both the Republican Ehrlich and the Democrat O'Malley tinkered around the edges of the Thornton formula, but these very different administrations both recognized the importance of maintaining the core commitment to state funding of K-12 education. As former Governor Ehrlich and Governor O'Malley head toward what looks likely to be a rematch this fall, voters should demand that they pledge to maintain that commitment in the next four years.

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