By ALEXANDER PYLES
COLLEGE PARK, Md. (February 18, 2011) Jeff Kurkjian, a senior from Quince Orchard High School in Gaithersburg, wanted to hear what Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley had to say about keeping arts programs in public schools. Megan Deckert, a senior from Boonsboro High School in Washington County, drove an hour and a half to have a chance to chat with the governor.
Whatever their questions or reasons, about 500 people—mostly high school students from around the state—crowded into the Stamp Student Union at the University of Maryland Friday to hear O'Malley and Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown riff on education, job creation and sustainability, all in the face of looming state budget cuts.
"These are things their grandparents did not have to confront," O'Malley said after spending about two hours with the students. The teens were nominated by their teachers to attend the event, which was rescheduled from January due to a snowstorm.
As he did in his State of the State address in early February, O'Malley emphasized the importance of education in job creation in Maryland.
"You look at whether a state's good for business, especially in the new economy, it's a combination of things, none of which is more important than the skill level, the talents, the education of our people. ... It's part of our business plan. It's part of how we compete with other states," he said.
But success goes beyond being competitive in this country, O'Malley said.
"The game today is not how much better we can be than New Jersey or New York. It's whether we can compete with kids from New Zealand and New Delhi and in this global economy."
O'Malley said 39 cents of every dollar in the state's general fund goes to public education and 11 cents of every dollar goes to higher education.
"Hopefully, when we come out of this recession, we can do even more for education," O'Malley said.
The governor also talked about the challenge of cleaning up and preserving the Chesapeake Bay, saying that decisions being made to help the bay are numerous and complicated.
"There is no easy button," he said. "There is no silver bullet."
And, in response to Kurkjian's question, O'Malley said he supported the arts and that it was up to individual school systems to make the choices on how to save money.
Kurkjian, 17, said he appreciated O'Malley's candor on issues and said he was pleased with the event overall, praising O'Malley for taking the time to talk with students. An O'Malley staffer displayed various reports on the governor's website on a large projection screen as he touched on topics ranging across education, security and sustainability.
"That was really what I was looking for," Kurkjian said. "Words are just words sometimes, but seeing the facts on the screen is good."
Before getting into the meat of the presentation, Brown assured students they were the future leaders of the state. That is why the governor's office has tried to keep education a fiscal priority despite a difficult budget climate, he said. But he added a caveat.
"We want a return in that investment," Brown said.
After fielding questions from students on the way education is funded, the steps being taken toward creating jobs in Maryland and the role of farmers in protecting the bay, O'Malley said he was encouraged that he was receiving that return on investment.
"I think we've been able to protect education because we see kids are improving their achievement," O'Malley said. "This generation of our state is very interested in how government works. ...
"These guys understand generational responsibilities."