New commission will likely lead to renewed battles over school funding

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By Len Lazarick

Quietly and unanimously, with brief hearings and practically no news coverage, the Maryland General Assembly passed bills that will likely set up one of the most contentious legislative fights of its election year session in 2018.

The companion bills, HB999/SB905, set up the Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education, a 25-member panel charged with examining a long list of issues about public school funding. Its recommendations are due in October 2017.

Creating the commission was a top priority for the Maryland State Education Association, the union representing 70,000 educators, but the entire education establishment was behind the bills, including all the school boards and superintendents. The Maryland Association of Counties, PTAs, the ACLU and child advocacy groups all supported the legislation.

The union refers to it as “a new Thornton II Commission … tasked with increasing state K-12 education funding to better meet the needs of students at schools with concentrated poverty.”

The bills are awaiting action by Gov. Larry Hogan.

The original Thornton Commission, headed by Howard University professor Alvin Thornton, recommended legislation passed in 2002 that led to the massive infusion of education funding from the state that now amounts to $6.3 billion a year. Adequate public schools is one of the few funding obligations mandated in the Maryland Constitution, and was the subject of multiple lawsuits in the last century that resulted in formation of the commission.

Tug-of-war over money

Passing that 2002 legislation led to an intense tug of war between jurisdictions over how the formulas would allocate dollars. The geographic cost of education index (GCEI), allocating more money to 10 “high cost” jurisdictions such as Montgomery County, was part of the compromise that helped pass the measure. That infusion of money was so significant that Rep. Chris Van Hollen, now running for U.S. Senate, touts it as one of his major legislative achievements as a Democratic state senator in TV ads and campaign speeches.

Any proposal for increased funding and changes in funding formulas in 2018 is likely to produce similar jurisdictional battles. And in 2018, Republican Hogan, who has already fought the legislature over GCEI, will be facing reelection. The original Thornton bill was signed by Democratic Gov. Parris Glendening finishing his second and final term.

A lot has changed in schools

A lot has changed in the 14 years since the Bridge to Excellence law, as the Thornton aid was officially named, came to pass.

“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,” notes MSEA.

The original Thornton legislation included a mandate for a Study of Adequacy of Funding for Education in the State Of Maryland 10 years later. That study has been going on for almost two years now, with the help of several outside consultants.

Its final report is due in December.

That study is only producing research and advice, not legislative recommendations for changes in funding formulas, several groups noted in their testimony supporting the bills.

“Now that Gov. Hogan isn’t taking us in the wrong direction with cuts to school funding, we can focus on a new direction that invests in the evidence-based strategies for giving low-income students the same opportunity to learn and succeed as their more affluent peers—such as smaller class sizes and universal pre-k,” said MSEA President Betty Weller in a statement last week.

Divided appointments

The 25-member commission includes four senators, four delegates, representatives of school boards, superintendents, unions, county officials, the university chancellor, business groups and parents, as well as members of the public. Some members are appointed by the Assembly’s presiding officers, some by the governor, and some by outside groups.

An interesting wrinkle is that the chair of the new school funding commission is a joint appointment of the governor, the Senate president and the speaker of the House.

And in an amendment added by the House Ways & Means Committee, if the governor doesn’t appoint the chair by Aug. 1, the president and speaker can do it on their own — another sign of the power-struggle between the Republican governor and the Democratic legislature.