State schools funding in flux as leaders debate budget deficit
Gov. Martin O'Malley's recent admonitions that education funding may be on the chopping block in the next round of budget cuts are warranted, but a deeper discussion about the relationship between county and state leaders is needed to develop a comprehensive budget strategy for education.
During a recent meeting with public school superintendents, O'Malley pointed out that education has not undergone any of the severe cuts that have other services. His comments came as the state is facing what could be a $2 billion hole in the roughly $13 billion general fund for the coming fiscal year. That O'Malley, who has been loathe to lay a finger on education funding, would suggest the possibility of cuts, is indicative of the seriousness of the state's budget gap.
As it stands, the $5.5 billion Maryland spends on education makes up about 40 percent of the general fund budget, and the evidence of the state and county commitments to education has been clear. In working to fully fund (albeit with a revised formula that amounts to a reduction in spending and the help of federal stimulus dollars) the landmark recommendations from the Thornton Commission, O'Malley deserves credit for contributing to Maryland's educational preeminence. In 2009, the education system was ranked first in the nation by Education Week. Also, a 2008 report on how funding recommended by Thornton affects education states, "In the few years following passage of Bridge to Excellence ... proficiency levels statewide have improved dramatically for all students..."
The idea that well-spent dollars translate to results in testing seems to be holding true, so it's essential to keep that in mind for any budget-cutting discussions. Consider that one of the possibilities for cuts is to the placement of special education students in nonpublic institutions. That could save the state tens of millions of dollars, but would target those with severe cognitive disabilities, a population from which O'Malley has already trimmed services. This would be doubly painful for these students because it costs more per pupil to educate children with disabilities.
Another possibility for cuts would be to the teacher pensions, a long-standing point of contention between the state and the counties. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., a Democrat from Calvert County, has been saber-rattling about his desire to shift the cost of funding teacher pensions to local jurisdictions. That could save the state more than $700 million, but ultimately would not help maintain the state's strong educational performance, as that burden would force counties to make compensatory cuts to other areas of education. According to fiscal 2009 data, the top two recipients of state dollars for pensions are Montgomery County, with $131 million, Prince George's County with $95 million.
Those are some hefty amounts for each county to make up if the pension shift comes to pass. Already, the Maryland State Education Association is pointing to county-level cuts due to the recession, including furlough days for teachers in Anne Arundel County, just half of empty positions filled in Carroll County and athletic programs reduced or eliminated in Howard County.
This leads to the need for well-intended discussions between state and county leaders. It's absurd to think that Maryland can maintain quality education if all state leaders are worried about is how their balance sheet looks. That line of thinking represents indifference toward a holistic approach to education, and the counties have long bemoaned unfunded mandates handed down from the state.
This is a fundamental problem with education in Maryland that while the state provides more than 50 percent of per-pupil spending, it seems disengaged as to how those funds are spent. Take, for example, teachers' salaries. In Montgomery County, they make up nearly 90 percent of the budget, and the state had no input into the contract negotiations for those employees. This method is akin to a 50-50 partner in a private company being removed from significant funding decisions made by the other partner. While state meddling in county-level affairs would not be welcome, more pre-budget discussions would help all jurisdictions with their long-term budgeting plans.
It's possible O'Malley and the legislature may be able to perform more creative bookkeeping and spare education funding, but even if that happens, the disconnect between the state and counties on education budgets would remain.