Education Funding Formulas: With Kirwan Commission Prepared to Finish Their Work, Stage is Set in Annapolis for Contentious Legislative Session

Matthew Bendorf*

As senators and delegates throughout the State of Maryland prepare for their annual descension to the State House in Annapolis, leaders of both chambers have established the core issue for the upcoming session.  At the top of the legislature’s list of priorities for the upcoming ninety-day session will be continued efforts on the first reformation of the state’s education system in seventeen years.  Kate Ryan, Maryland House Speaker Said Education Bill Will Be Top Priority, WTOP (July 24, 2019, 4:10 AM), https://wtop.com/maryland/2019/07/marylands-house-speaker-says-education-bill-will-be-number-one/.

The Maryland Commission on Innovation & Excellence in Education, known simply as the “Kirwan Commission” after its chairman William Kirwan, has been convening to address the dilemmas of the state’s education system since its inception in 2016.  Liz Bowie, What is the Kirwan Commission? What You Need to Know About the Group Addressing Maryland Public Education, Balt. Sun (Sept. 30, 2019, 8:00 AM), https://www.baltimoresun.com/education/bs-md-what-is-kirwan-commission-20190930-d76c5hkgkrfutomwzdax7ls6b4-story.html.  The Kirwan Commission marks Maryland’s first large-scale effort to renovate its public-school system since the Commission on Education Finance, Equity and Excellence’s (the Thornton Commission) efforts in 2002, which were led by chairman Alvin Thornton.  Mary Grace Keller, Considering Kirwan: Carroll Politicians Fear Repeat of Thornton Commission; MSEA Supports Recommendations, Balt. Sun (Oct. 20, 2019, 5:05 AM), https://www.baltimoresun.com/maryland/carroll/news/cc-kirwan-carroll-response-20191020-dlatry3ecfe7joofnvy6p2cfqu-story.html.

In 2002, the Thornton Commission made various recommendations on how to improve education funding throughout the state.  See Final Report, Comm’n on Educ., Finance, Equity and Excellence (2002).  One of the Thornton Commission’s most significant changes rested in its modification of the per-pupil funding allocation formula (the Thornton formula).  Id. at 1.  The Thornton formula received elevated scrutiny in 2015 when critics discovered that property tax cuts, driven by economic incentivization, were forcing Baltimore City’s mandatory per-pupil funding allocation to grow at a slower rate than other jurisdictions in the state.  Luke Broadwater, Baltimore’s Quick Economic Growth Contributes to Loss in State Aid to Schools, Balt. Sun (Feb. 8, 2015, 8:36 PM), https://www.baltimoresun.com/maryland/baltimore-city/bs-md-ci-school-funds-20160208-story.html.  These concerns were echoed by elected officials in Maryland’s rural areas whose districts were experiencing similar shortfalls.  Id.  Although nearly every state in the country ties education funding closely to local property taxes, concerns arise about the potential for disparity in educational resources based on local affluence and business activity.  Cory Turner et al., Why America’s Schools Have a Money Problem, Nat’l Pub. Radio (Apr. 18, 2016, 5:00 AM), https://www.npr.org/2016/04/18/474256366/why-americas-schools-have-a-money-problem.  Shortly thereafter, the General Assembly established the Kirwan Commission to develop new solutions for the state’s education funding.  See Erin Cox, Landmark Kirwan Panel Delays Plan on School Funding, Balt. Sun (Oct. 25, 2017, 5:40 PM), https://www.baltimoresun.com/politics/bs-md-kirwan-delay-20171025-story.html.

The Commission submitted its interim report in January of 2019, which highlighted the need for increases in funding for an array of educational programs.  See Md. Comm’n on Innovation & Excellence in Educ., Interim Report, Dep’t Legis. Servs. (Jan. 2019), http://dls.maryland.gov/pubs/prod/NoPblTabMtg/CmsnInnovEduc/2019-Interim-Report-of-the-Commission.pdf#search=commission%20on%20innovation%20and%20excellence.  The Interim Report criticized the Thornton formula and proposed an influx of $3.8 billion into the education system.  Id. at 4, 122.  As a result of the Interim Report, the legislature enacted the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future with bipartisan support, which allocated $875 million to education funding.  Pamela Wood, Maryland Gov. Hogan to Allow $850 Million School Funding Bill to Become Law Without His Signature, Balt. Sun (May 15, 2019, 7:15 PM), https://www.baltimoresun.com/politics/bs-md-hogan-kirwan-20190514-story.html.  The Commission’s work has been extended to December of this year to finalize its funding formula recommendations.  See Interim Report, at 132.  In October of 2019, a panel of the Kirwan Commission released its most recent effort to reform the Thornton formula, which would currently control the funding if the General Assembly enacts it in the upcoming session.  Brian Witte, Maryland Panel Recommends New $4B School Funding Formula, Associated Press News (Oct. 15, 2019), https://apnews.com/d1687d41ec8346899eeafb49041007aa.

Larry Hogan, Maryland’s first two-term Republican governor since Theodore McKeldin (1951–1959), and its second in the history of the state, has enjoyed immense popularity throughout the course of his administration.  Patrick Gleason, Blue State Republican Governors are Among the Nation’s Most Popular Politicians, Forbes (Sept. 30, 2019, 10:44 PM), https://www.forbes.com/sites/patrickgleason/2019/09/30/blue-state-republican-governors-are-among-the-nations-most-popular-politicians/.  This spring’s education deliberations may present his greatest challenge yet.  Although, 77% of respondents to a recent Goucher poll have never heard of the Kirwan Commission or its efforts, a nearly equal amount of the respondents support increases to the state’s education system.  See Erin Cox, Poll: Md. Residents Back Higher Taxes for Public Education but Are Unaware of Plan to Fix Schools, Wash. Post (Sept. 23, 2019, 12:00 AM), https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/md-politics/poll-md-residents-back-higher-taxes-for-public-education-but-are-unaware-of-plan-to-fix-schools/2019/09/22/ed905768-dd49-11e9-8dc8-498eabc129a0_story.html.

Governor Hogan’s opposition to the $4 billion education funding plan stems from the necessary increase in state taxes that will need to occur to account for the increased funding.  Associated Press, Gov. Larry Hogan Says He Is Opposed to Large Tax Increases to Fund Kirwan Education Plan, Balt. Sun (Aug. 17, 2019, 2:28 PM), https://www.baltimoresun.com/politics/bs-md-hogan-education-0817-20190817-g5d56mrf5fe3nhu34rcyfjoo5q-story.html.  The governor has proposed a more financially prudent approach to addressing the Commission’s goals.  Pamela Wood, Maryland Gov. Hogan Announces Proposals for School Construction and Improving Low-Rated Schools, Balt. Sun (Dec. 5, 2019, 6:26 PM), https://www.baltimoresun.com/politics/bs-md-pol-hogan-announcement-20191205-vouhuj5ytnbpjlyhbznmk5zbhu-story.html.  The proposal received mixed reviews from the democratic assembly leaders.  Id.  Bill Ferguson, the soon-to-be senate president and lifelong educator, praised the governor’s efforts to address the Commission’s findings, while house speaker Adrienne Jones criticized the lack of detail in the proposal.  Id.

Although the governor is primarily in control of the state’s budget, the Democratic party’s supermajority in both chambers of the General Assembly allows them to draft legislation requiring mandatory budget allocations.  See, e.g., Luke Broadwater & Pamela Wood, Maryland General Assembly Overrides Gov. Hogan’s Vetoes of $15 Minimum Wage, Comptroller’s Oversight, Balt. Sun (Mar. 28, 2019, 7:10 PM), https://www.baltimoresun.com/politics/bs-md-veto-overrides-20190328-story.html.

*Matthew Bendorf is a third-year evening student at the University of Baltimore, where he serves as a staff editor for Law Review. During the day, Matthew serves as a law clerk for both Winelander Law Group and Hanley and Grason, LLC.

 

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