By Barry Rascovar
He masks it well, but Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. plays a good game of partisan politics. Behind that smile and friendly voice is a fierce Republican eager to further the conservative cause.
Education is a prime example of Hogan’s conservative partisanship trumping over sound public policy.
First, he needlessly nixed $68 million in education aid to 14 high-cost subdivisions, basing his action on the false premise that this money was needed to bolster the state’s pension fund. (The money instead sits unused in the state treasury.)
He tossed a bunch of moderate non-partisans off the Baltimore County school board and named one replacement who is an outspoken social conservative with views on public education that are far from mainstream.
Then he announced a surprise gift of $5.6 million to three Republican-voting counties to help them with their loss of state funds due to shrinking enrollment.
That announcement was bogus, too.
No done deal
Hogan is talking as though he can write a check to the three counties – Carroll, Garrett and Kent. He can’t.
In reality, he’s only putting a request for this appropriation in his next budget, due in January. It will be up to the Democratic General Assembly to determine if Hogan’s “gift” to three of 24 school systems is warranted.
It’s highly unlikely Hogan’s maneuver to aid just the three Republican counties will be approved as submitted.
Moreover, this funding from Hogan is only a temporary, one-year sop to the three Republican counties. It does nothing to solve their long-range education budget woes caused by too many school buildings and a dwindling number of students.
But the governor got raves from some Republican politicians and angry parents in Carroll County, who have been waging a concerted effort to keep three schools open, despite the fact that flat migration and slowing birthrates has led to a 7 percent drop in school enrollment, with more losses expected over the next five years.
Hogan’s aid plan merely kicks the proverbial can down the road – the very same tactic Candidate Hogan railed against when attacking the O’Malley-Brown administration during last year’s campaign.
Following lengthy studies and deliberations, Carroll’s school superintendent recommended closing three under-capacity schools next fall and possibly two more later. This would save at least $5.2 million. He wants to address $14 million in unmet needs within the school system caused by the county leadership’s refusal to raise more local tax dollars for education.
Hogan is pandering to a few of Carroll’s Republican legislators, who want the state to bail them out of this education dilemma of their own making. The cold, hard reality is that maintaining a quality school system is a costly proposition for local governments.
The option they sought to avoid: Closing no-longer-needed schools, which are expensive to maintain. Such a move is intensely unpopular with those that are affected – parents and their children.
But Carroll’s school board refused to take Hogan’s bait. Members recognized they were being offered fool’s gold. They understood this would only add to the anguish and costs.
A true conservative wouldn’t play this type of political game.
Instead, a true conservative would let the downsizing (or “right-sizing”) commence so the school system spends its limited dollars more wisely and efficiently.
Isn’t the conservative approach espoused by Hogan all about eliminating wasteful government spending?
Rather than taking a partisan, piecemeal and temporary approach to this problem, why not examine the need to make long-range changes in Maryland’s school-aid formula?
Schools with declining enrollments shouldn’t suffer such immediate and deep aid cuts. That’s a flaw in the state’s education formula. Garrett County, impoverished and isolated, is a prime example of how this portion of the formula unfairly harms jurisdictions most in need.
At the same time, other parts of the formula need fixing. Baltimore City is being penalized because its property wealth grew last year due to waterfront developments. But that doesn’t necessarily translate into more local money for schools.
There’s an even bigger question not being discussed.
With the state likely to show a huge surplus in January, isn’t it time to take a bipartisan look at possibly raising Maryland’s per-pupil spending as the state’s economy gains momentum?
A panel is studying changes in the school-aid formula, with its final report due next fall. Republicans need to open their minds to supporting a future increase in state funding aid if they truly want to help schools in Republican counties.
Partisanship won’t disappear, though. We can expect a major tug of war on this issue starting in January and extending through the next gubernatorial election.