School Funding Law Deserves Review

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What happens in Annapolis over the next couple months will go a long way toward determining how public education gets funded across Maryland.

In Maryland, public school money has essentially been sheltered from drastic cuts because there’s a law that states every county government must at least spend the same per pupil as they did the previous year or risk losing state education contributions. It’s called Maintenance of Effort (MoE), and most elected government officials detest it because they don’t like being told what to with their money do by the state.

Even public school officials are not enamored with the law. Certainly thankful that it’s there to secure at least the same amount of money from the year prior, it’s argued that simply funding MOE does not allow the school system any opportunity to grow and improve. It essentially just ensures the status quo. There’s no room for progress, some Worcester school officials have said in the past.

No matter the side you fall on, there was enough of an outcry last year that General Assembly legislators plan to examine MOE and the process that surrounds it. The Maryland Association of Counties (MACO) is adamantly encouraging legislators to take a look and consider easing the requirements for counties to secure a waiver from the state, allowing the individual jurisdictions to cut per-pupil funding in their next budgets if a hardship is proven. Additionally, MACO is looking to have a different body than the Maryland State Department of Education rule over the waiver requests, and we agree this is needed.

Regarding MOE, it’s understandable how supporters and opponents come to their positions. The concepts behind the funding law are sound. The idea is as school system enrollments grow funding needs to follow. When it shrinks, it follows that course as well. That’s logical.

At its most fundamental, the goal of MOE is to protect our students and ensure education funding is not slashed to their detriment. Nobody ever wants to see the students harmed.

What complicates matters is politics and unfortunately that comes into play when millions of dollars are at risk. Last year, tensions ran high among some County Commissioners and school system administrators. The county asked for a waiver to reduce education spending by $1.8 million. After numerous cuts made elsewhere and understanding their request was going to ultimately be rejected, as was the case with three other jurisdictions, the county reluctantly withdrew its waiver.

We think the process of determining whether a waiver of MOE is flawed, and the problems start with whom is making the decision. It’s wrong for the state Board of Education to decide whether a waiver is granted. It needs to be handled by an independent committee of folks who understand the intricate finances involved.

The state board’s primary focus is on education and by its nature it would not allow public school funding to be cut below the MoE. In a letter to the chairman of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee last summer, President William Parran expresses our view well. He wrote, “… vesting waiver approval authority solely with the State Board, whose entire purpose of being is to advocate for education, was not a wise choice.  It also places the State Board in an untenable position as an education advocate – it would go against the State Board’s basic principles to ever grant a waiver.  It is also questionable whether the State Board has the fiscal expertise necessary to evaluate county budget and economic conditions.”

The legislature needs to thoroughly examine the process and at the very least should assign discretion over these waiver requests to another board that cannot be accused of being biased one way or another.

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