Superintendent Terry Alban has kicked off the budget season for Frederick County Public Schools with a 2021 operating budget that is — even more than usual — a rough first draft that will be evolving until the deadline for approval in the spring.
Alban is requesting a significant boost in funding, a 7.3 percent increase from the fiscal 2020 operating budget, to $683 million.
As the Maryland General Assembly convenes, however, the biggest item of business on its agenda is the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, more commonly known as the Kirwan Commission. And where that debate will take our state and our county, no one knows.
The commission has recommended enormous increases in funding for education, both on the part of the state government and local governments. How much of that the Legislature will approve, how much money the state might provide, and how much might be required of the counties will be argued about during the 90-day session, probably right up until the final day in April.
The Board of Education has already been warned by staff that the school system expects at least a $4.2 million cost to support new mandates if all of the commission’s recommendations win approval. We believe that figure might be too low.
The commission recommended increasing total funding by $4 billion more per year, with $2.8 billion from the state and requiring local school systems to come up with the remaining $1.2 billion. And yes, that would be every year, on top of the current spending.
The superintendent’s budget would already align with some changes that most people expect to see from the Legislature, especially increasing teacher pay and creating more accountability programs to make sure the money goes where it is supposed to go.
According to the Baltimore Sun, the commission’s major recommendations are:
- Expanding prekindergarten to all 4-year-olds, as well as 3-year-olds from poor families.
- Increasing the standards to become a teacher and raising teacher salaries.
- Revamping high schools to offer students training for well-paying jobs right after graduation.
- Providing more support to special education students and schools with concentrations of poor families.
Alban did address the salary issue and is requesting more staff in the central office to respond to new accountability requirements. But some of her other priorities are not among the commission recommendations. She highlighted reducing class size, creating a replacement cycle for technology and increasing staff in the schools to address increasing enrollment.
Reducing class size is popular both with parents and teachers, and the school board members are in favor of it as well. But it does cost a lot of money. Alban’s draft includes $3.6 million to reduce class size in kindergarten through eighth grade, but the document does not specify by how many students.
The research on the benefit of cutting class size is mixed. According to education experts, the best study was conducted by the state of Tennessee in the late 1980s, and the results showed that students in classes averaging 15 pupils did better than those in classes averaging 22. That is a huge reduction, and most school systems cannot afford to do that much.
A 2015 study by the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California concluded:
“We can say with confidence that smaller class sizes improve grades for younger learners. But the answers to deeper questions are less clear. …
“The magnitude of the impact must be weighed against the impact of other reforms. For example, would paying higher salaries to retain a high-quality teacher workforce be money better spent?”
That seems to be the direction the Kirwan study wants school systems to go.
If Frederick County is going to be called on to provide a lot more funding for our schools, we have to make certain that every dollar is spent wisely, and with the greatest impact.
This is not to say that Alban’s budget is too large. It is a continuing embarrassment that our county ranks at the bottom of per-pupil spending in the state. The mandates of the Kirwan Commission might change that, but the school board must keep a close eye on its pennies.