The State Board of Education was right to reject Anne Arundel County Executive John Leopold's attempt to evade the spirit of a law that prevents local jurisdictions from slacking off in their support for public schools. Protest though he might that he had done nothing wrong, Mr. Leopold's budget for the current fiscal year provided less money to support classroom education than in the year before, and had his effort been allowed to stand, that difference — amounting to about $12 million a year — would have been cemented into perpetuity.
Mr. Leopold said he was not surprised by the board's decision, and he reiterated his complaint that the state's mandate that counties maintain their levels of spending on K-12 education — which were bolstered by a new law passed this year — is crowding out other vital county services. He is not the only local leader to chafe against Maryland's maintenance of effort law. Both Montgomery and Prince George's counties have tried in recent years to get around the requirement, as have some smaller counties, particularly on the Eastern Shore. Last year, Talbot County was openly defiant of the state's authority to mandate a certain level of spending. The new law, which will allow the state to intercept a county's share of income tax revenue and send it directly to the schools if it fails to meet the requirement, drew widespread opposition from local government officials, who called it an encroachment on their authority.
Since the new law passed, the state Board of Education has received waiver requests from Kent and Wicomico counties. Officials in Kent argue that they deserve a waiver because the economic downturn has affected it more than other counties, and they say that it would be untenable to raise taxes enough to pay for the additional amount they are required to fund under the law. They also claim that the schools would not be hurt by the county's failure to meet the full maintenance of effort amount, though the superintendent there, Barbara Wheeler, strongly disputes that notion.
In Wicomico, officials are seeking an agreement among the county government, the school board and the local teachers union on a lower school funding level, which is an avenue available under the new law. Wicomico has also increased its income tax level to the maximum amount allowable under state law, 3.2 percent, a move that would have allowed the county to fund its schools at a substantially lower level under a provision delegates and senators had agreed to but which was part of one of the bills that failed to pass on the General Assembly session's final day. It is possible that the provision will be revived if the legislature returns for a special session next month.
Anne Arundel County could have been eligible for a waiver that would have lowered its required funding level for the next fiscal year based on its history of spending more than it was required to on schools. But it would have had to receive an economic hardship waiver first, which would have been difficult if not impossible. And in any case, the deadline for waivers passed before the state board rendered its decision on the county's compliance for the current fiscal year.
Wicomico officials have echoed Mr. Leopold's warning that without relief from the state requirements, other parts of county government, notably public safety, will suffer. But those complaints fall flat. Maryland's constitution requires that all students in the state be provided with an adequate, free public education, and the current levels of funding were set after an extensive study of exactly what that would require by what is now known as the Thornton Commission. The constitution does not require any particular level of service when it comes to police protection, trash pickup or anything else that local government does.
Residents may, of course, demand an adequately funded fire department, but that is a political question more than a legal one, and it is the job of county executives to balance those priorities with voters' demands for low taxes. Doing so is bound to involve unpopular choices, and it's easier to blame state government mandates than to take responsibility for them. But Maryland has wisely recognized the unique importance of public education, and complain though they might, local officials have to live with that.