As the Maryland General Assembly gears up for another session in January, the biggest battles are likely to be over the future of education funding.
How much to spend, and who is going to pay, should dominate the 90-day meeting, much as it did last year.
The Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education — also called the Kirwan Commission — has urged state legislators to increase annual spending on education by almost $4 billion over the next decade.
The commission, headed by William E. Kirwan, former president of the University of Maryland and later chancellor of the whole state system, bluntly warned that Maryland schools are not as good as most Marylanders think they are.
How bad is it? According to Kirwan, more than 60 percent of Maryland’s graduating high school seniors can’t read at a 10th-grade level or pass an Algebra I test. That’s not good.
The commission said that Maryland is just not spending enough money on its children. Is that right? We are going to get into a lot of numbers here, but bear with us.
According to the publication Education Week, the national average per pupil spending among all the states is $12,756. Maryland is just above the national mark, at $13,146, but lower than other Northeastern states.
Vermont spends the most, at $20,540 per pupil, followed by New York at $19,697, Education Week said. Virginia, though, spends just $10,530, and North Carolina and Florida less than $10,000 a year.
Within our state, the variance is really large, and some systems are spending a lot. The Baltimore Business Journal reported this year that Baltimore City schools spent the third-most of the 100 largest school systems nationwide, at $16,184 per pupil, according to data from the Census Bureau.
The city’s schools are usually described as failing, despite that spending.
Four Maryland school districts ranked among the top 10 — Montgomery County fourth at $16,109, Howard County fifth at $15,921 spent per student and Prince George’s County sixth at $15,560. Montgomery and Howard schools have good reputations; Prince George’s schools, less so.
So, does more money buy better results? That is the $4 billion question.
According to the website The Nation’s Report Card, the national average math score for eighth-grade students in 2019 was 281 on a scale of zero to 500. Maryland’s students were at 280, almost exactly average. But so were New York students, also 280, even though the state spent almost $7,000 more per pupil on education.
And eighth-graders in Virginia, where spending is $2,000 a year less per pupil, scored 287, which the website called significantly above average.
Yes, that is a lot of number-crunching to digest. But we think it means that the Legislature needs to spend a lot more time thinking about how and where to spend education dollars than they so far have.
Implementing the Kirwan spending recommendations entirely would be a brutal exercise for Marylanders. The general idea is that the state would come up with about half of the money and individual jurisdictions would come up with the rest.
Legislators talk about legalizing sports gambling and legalizing and taxing recreational marijuana to raise the money. But the most generous projections are that those combined would generate one-eighth of the new money that Kirwan is recommending.
They also talk about redirecting some state spending, and it is always worthwhile re-examining the mission of all state agencies. But we cannot rob Peter to pay Paul, shortchanging transportation or public safety.
Most of the money would have to come from tax increases, and lots of them. And our state already collects a lot of money in taxes. According to the nonprofit Tax Foundation, the state and local tax burden in Maryland ranks seventh in the country. The income tax burden is second heaviest.
A recent survey reported that more than 70 percent of residents would be willing to pay more in taxes if the money improved the schools. Maybe, but how much more? They aren’t saying.
Just 20 years ago, another state panel — the Thornton Commission — recommended $2 billion in new spending, and it was approved. But educational results did not make any great leap forward.
Some Maryland schools are failing some students, but not all schools and not all students. State leaders need to be realistic about resources and strategic in new spending. More money is not always the answer to every problem.