Schools come up short

Our view: Time to hold counties accountable for cutting back on school spending, a trend that threatens the education gains made possible by Thornton reforms

January 17, 2012

When it was announced recently that Maryland public schools were rated top in the nation for the fourth straight year by Education Week magazine, the state's interim schools superintendent was quick to give credit where it's due — to the taxpayer dollars spent on education. "School finance," observed Bernard J. Sadusky, "has been an anchor for us."

It has been a decade now since the Maryland General Assembly approved the Thornton commission's recommendation to boost state spending on public schools. That $1.3 billion increase has not only helped raise student performance, but it has been particularly vital in bringing equity to school funding and providing resources to poorer districts.

But critical to the Thornton plan is the need for local governments to maintain adequate funding of their school districts as well. If Baltimore and Maryland's 23 counties fail to cover their share of education costs, then the Thornton dollars are meaningless. They would represent no more than a transfer of funding responsibility from local taxpayers to state taxpayers.

For most of the past 10 years, local governments have complied and met what's known as the "maintenance of effort" requirement — ensuring that, as measured on a per-pupil basis, schools are provided as much money in any school year as they were the year before. But since the economic downturn in 2008, that support has begun to wane.

This year, it appears seven of the 24 districts have failed to meet maintenance of effort targets. Perhaps the worst offender is Wicomico County. The Lower Eastern Shore county has cut its share of local school funding by 27 percent over the past two years — essentially reversing the progress made possible by the 2002 Thornton law.

Certainly, local governments have been put in a difficult position. Education is already the biggest expense they face, and they have little control over how the dollars are spent. Many are loath to raise taxes, and all have been hit hard by the downturn in the real estate market (a particular problem since Baltimore and the counties raise a far higher percentage of their tax revenues from property taxes than state government does).

But such excuses are not acceptable when it comes to something as important to Maryland's future as public education. Talbot County, home to numerous luxury waterfront estates, is considered to have the second-highest per-pupil wealth (as measured by a formula that considers both income and property tax bases) in Maryland. Yet the county failed to meet its maintenance of effort standard this year, and officials appear unrepentant.

To their credit, Maryland's top legislative leaders have already expressed concern about the trend. At a recent meeting sponsored by the Maryland Association of Counties, both House Speaker Michael E. Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller warned that school funding could not continue to slide, particularly after such a large investment by the state.

The solution, advocates say, would be to strengthen maintenance of effort requirements by not only clarifying the standard (muddied by the legislature last year) but also by increasing the penalties for jurisdictions that fail to meet it.

But it's not quite as simple as one might assume. One reason counties have been less interested in meeting the maintenance of effort requirement in recent years is that there is little incentive for them to do so. Unlike the early days of Thornton, when tens of millions of additional dollars were at stake each year, state education aid has been relatively flat in recent times.

Making matters worse, the penalty for failing to meet the law has been a reduction in state aid to schools. In other words, if a county ignores the law, it's the local school system that take the hit — and it does so twice, with less local aid and then less state aid.

There are, however, ways to get around that problem. The General Assembly might put other forms of state aid in jeopardy. Money normally passed from the state to the counties for other purposes (road repair or economic development, for example) might be redirected toward schools if counties fail to meet their educational obligations.

That's not to suggest that local governments should never be excused from the maintenance of effort requirement when times are tough. But better for them to seek a one-year waiver from the state (under current law, from the state school board) then be given a free pass. Waivers have certainly been granted in the past — Wicomico received one as recently as 2010.

What's essential is that the quality of public education in Maryland be preserved and, if possible, improved. Money isn't the whole solution, but Thornton aid has made possible all kinds of advances in K-12 education, including smaller classes, specialty programs, improved science and math instruction, and full-day kindergarten.

In the past, lawmakers have been sympathetic to the cries of local officials who were stuck between a rock and a hard place — not wanting to raise taxes during a recession or decimate other county services in order to preserve education spending. But enough is enough. It's time for Annapolis to show some tough love and stick up for Maryland's public schools before greater damage is done.

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