Maryland Schools Are Underfunded by $3 Billion

It’s up to the Kirwan Commission to revamp and improve school funding statewide

Photo © NEA

Named after its chair, for­mer University System of Maryland Chancellor Brit Kirwan, the Commission’s 25 members are working to rewrite Maryland’s school funding formula. They are scheduled to deliver recom­mendations to the General Assembly in December.

Since legislators passed the Bridge to Excellence in Public Schools Act (also known as the Thornton Plan) in 2002, Maryland has provided historic levels of school funding. But the plan was never meant to accommodate current levels of child poverty. The percentage of Maryland pub­lic school students living in pov­erty has more than doubled since 1990 — from 22% to 45% — putting our statewide student population on the verge of becoming majori­ty low-income. When you consid­er those increased needs togeth­er with the higher standards and new programs implemented over the last five years alone, our cur­rent levels of education spending fall short for too many students.

MSEA worked with the General Assembly to create the Kirwan Commission in 2016 and now, David Helfman, MSEA’s executive director, advocates for MSEA members in the commission’s discussions.

How much funding are we talking about?

In December, the Kirwan Commission received a report from national school fund­ing experts recommending an increase of $2.9 billion statewide ($1.9 billion in state funding and $1 billion in county funding). Ac­cording to their analysis — based on conversations with Maryland educators and recent academic research — that’s how much more spending is necessary for schools to meet the needs of every child.

The recommendations would provide important gains in re­sources. But how those increases break down varies quite a bit. In St. Mary’s County, schools would see a 44% increase over current spending (an additional $78 million) while Howard would see an 8% increase over current spending ($56 million more). The largest step up in total dollars would go to Prince George’s, which would receive a $600 million boost.

How and why are schools so underfunded?

The Thornton Commission developed a plan that in the early 2000s was considered a national model for equitable school funding — and it was remarkably successful. Following its implementation, Maryland schools placed first in Education Week’s state rankings from 2009–2013, first in the College Board’s Advanced Place­ment performance rankings from 2007–2016, and second in fourth-grade reading improvement and fourth in fourth-grade math im­provement on NAEP from 2003 to 2013.

But just like every other state in the country, Maryland had to make some serious budget com­promises in the aftermath of the Great Recession. While Maryland did better than most states in avoiding massive education cuts, the state froze, then capped, the amount of funding increases allowed for a number of years — which had a compounding effect in the Thornton Plan. Under Thornton, each year’s increase, due to inflation and enrollment growth, is based on the previous year’s allocation. The aggregate effect of this has ballooned the underfunding of our schools to nearly $3 billion.

What are some of the ideas being discussed on the commission?

Members of the Kirwan Commis­sion want to make recommenda­tions on both what the increased number should be and how they should make this new investment.

The funding experts who came up with the $2.9 billion recom­mendation also suggested some possible strategies, including: decreasing class sizes; increasing instructional staff; building in more planning time for teach­ers; and hiring more school counselors, nurses, and behavior­al specialists. They also built in the implementation of pre-kindergarten for all four-year-olds to their overall recommen­dation. Other experts have testified in front of the commis­sion and stressed the need to invest directly in the education professions by increasing sal­aries and building up training programs based on successful international models.

These conversations present a rare opportunity to accomplish large-scale improvements to working conditions for educators and learning opportunities for our students.