State Budget 'Balanced on the Backs of Our Students'

By Deidre McPhillips

ANNAPOLIS—State legislators and education heavy-hitters gathered at the Maryland State Education Association headquarters in Annapolis Tuesday, rallying for the reversal of Gov. Larry Hogan's proposed $144 million cuts to public education funding.

“The budget is being balanced on the backs of our students,” said Betty Weller, president of the Maryland State Education Association.

A 50 percent cut to the geographic cost of education index, a state formula that provides additional spending to some jurisdictions where the cost of education is more expensive, results in a loss of $68 million.

The governor’s Budget Reconciliation and Financing Act of 2015 would reduce the funding per pupil by an additional $94 statewide and cut grants based on localities’ tax revenue by $12 million, if approved by the General Assembly.

In a constricted financial environment, Hogan’s proposed budget increases overall spending for public schools by $45.3 million, to $6.1 billion for fiscal year 2016. Much of the increase is coming from funding for school construction.

Hogan is “open to suggestions from outside groups and from legislators on how to keep education the No. 1 priority for Maryland,” said Erin Montgomery, Hogan’s press secretary. But before making changes, he would have to see a proposal on how to make up for the cuts in a tight budget, she said Tuesday.

A plan for how to fully refund the proposed cuts has not yet been reached, said House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Maggie McIntosh, D-Baltimore, but the money would have to come from cuts to other departments or transfers of funds from other departments or the state’s contingency fund.

The decision to do either lies with the governor, as state legislators can only cut or restrict funds in the budget that the governor proposes.

House Speaker Michael Busch, D-Anne Arundel, said at the meeting that the proposed cuts are not only detrimental to the progress made in education, but to the “structure of life” in Maryland. A well-educated population is critical to a productive workforce and functioning state, he said.

Also leading the charge were state Senator Nancy King, D-Montgomery, Senate chair of the Montgomery County delegation; and state Senator Joan Carter Conway, D-Baltimore, chair of the Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee.

Especially troubling to many Tuesday were the long-term implications of the proposed budget.

Public schools would get $600 million less than anticipated in long-term projections over the next four years due to Hogan’s proposed caps on inflation rates, according to the Maryland Education Association. A formula that follows the presumed rate of inflation—which Hogan plans to restrict—drives the growth in per-pupil funding each year.

McIntosh cited the state constitution’s first charge of a “thorough and efficient system of free public schools.” She said that though Hogan’s budget does not violate the state constitution, it is a tear at the system’s safety net.

In a lawsuit filed against the Maryland State Board of Education in 1994, a Baltimore City Circuit Court judge ruled that the city’s public schoolchildren were not receiving constitutionally adequate education. Following the court ruling, the General Assembly passed the Bridge to Excellence in Public Schools act in 2002, which phased in a funding plan over the next six years. When the law expired in fiscal year 2008, per pupil funding remained flat.

“We can’t leave an entire generation of students behind, waiting for someone to file (another) lawsuit,” said Busch.

Effects of the cuts for each jurisdiction are presented on a website called “Don’t Shortchange Maryland,” launched Tuesday by the Maryland State Education Association ( Facts and figures show the dollar amounts each county, school and classroom will lose if the budget passes as it is proposed, as well as the number of teacher and support staff positions at risk. A short online petition form calls Marylanders to action with a few clicks.

In terms of overall dollars, Prince George’s and Montgomery counties and Baltimore City bear the brunt of the cuts, poised to deal with about 60 percent of the total reductions, according to the Maryland State Education Association’s calculations.

“We need to make sure that not only the loudest voices are made to count,” said Maryland Parent-Teacher Association President Ray Leone. “Different counties are facing different challenges, and it’s like a tightrope walk to balance priorities.”

Legislators have been open to discussion, said Leone, and the Parent-Teacher Association is in a “wait and see” mode as their representatives work out a plan.

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