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For Md. schools, more money is not the answer

Originally published in the Baltimore Sun

Economic & Fiscal Policy, Education, Charter Schools

by Christopher B. Summers

OP-EDS

MARCH 1, 2017 Bookmark and Share

More than a century ago, iconic Marylander Frederick Douglass wrote, "some men know the value of education by having it. I know its value by not having it."

Fast forward to today, the Baltimore City Public School System (BCPSS) should prompt us all to question the value of the education it provides 82,000 students annually. The BCPSS is beset by poor school performance, massive deficits and financial mismanagement. Yet officials are pleading for more money, as if the lives in their care are merely statistics to be manipulated for a bailout instead of individuals who aspire to one day hold a job, provide for their families and lead the city.

In the upcoming fiscal year, the BCPSS deficit is projected to be $129 million, the largest in two decades of almost constant massive annual deficits. And then there was the scathing federal audit in 2013 that found BCPSS spent thousands on dinner cruises, makeovers and meals that should have been directed to the classroom. Most importantly, there is the fact that less than 20 percent of city public school students in grades 3 through 8 meet or exceed expectations in English and math, according to the latest Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) tests. Of the English results, BCPSS CEO Sonja Santelises in September 2016 said, "... we are not giving large numbers of our students the skills needed to master increasingly complex texts of different kinds. These results show that systemic changes are needed in the way we teach literacy and language arts, beginning in the earliest grades."

This is a tacit acknowledgment that the massive cash infusion Baltimore City schools received from 2002 and 2008, known as the Thornton plan, was poorly used. If that is true, Baltimore City parents and taxpayers as well as state policy makers should demand accountability from city leadership before agreeing to new money. Baltimore City already spends $15,564 per pupil, the fourth highest per student out of the 100 largest school districts in the nation, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

That is why a new study showing that Maryland needs to spend $2.6 billion more per year in education each year is so troubling. The same consultants who paved the way for Thornton now think the state should give Baltimore an extra $434 million per year as part of that plan.

The reason for the increase is to address inequality throughout the state, but given that only about 40 percent of students statewide meet state English and math standards, and that over 60 percent of students who enter community colleges after graduation need to take remedial math classes, students and taxpayers are getting a raw deal. Contrary to popular belief, students who take remedial classes did very well in high school, according to the 2011 Student Outcome and Achievement Report, begging the question just what students are learning if they are so unprepared for college.

Feeling good about ourselves for ostensibly leveling the financial playing field as a state didn't resolve the glaring inequality of academic achievement between rich and poor and minority and white students under Thornton, and the only thing higher mandated spending will do is further restrict the state budget. The Hogan administration estimates that 83 percent of the operating budget is out of its control. By fiscal 2021, the state will have to spend $3 billion more per year because of statutory requirements — regardless of need or its ability to pay.

The better option would be to expand charter school choices and the voucher program for children in failing schools to let them and their families decide which schools are best suited for them. If vouchers were not in demand, why would thousands more children want them than have access to them?

More importantly, shouldn't student achievement guide how Maryland spends dollars rather than arbitrary amounts disconnected from readiness for work or college? Taxpayers deserve to know they are preparing productive lives, not funding bureaucracies.

Money should be spent where it works, not to justify complex formulas that so far have failed the thousands of students, especially those entering college each year utterly unprepared for the future.

Christopher B. Summers is president and chief executive officer of the Maryland Public Policy Institute. His email is csummers@mdpolicy.org.