Higher school spending doesn’t equal higher achievement

Originally published in The Daily Record

Maryland’s children are props in a battle stacked against them yet again. Year after year taxpayers are told “the children can’t wait” and need more money to improve their achievement. This year is no exception.


Earlier this week the state teachers’ union marched for more school funding amid a legislative debate about how to pay the $4 billion bill for recommendations to improve student learning by the Kirwan Commission, so named for its chair, the former chancellor of The University System of Maryland, William “Brit” Kirwan.


Before legislators cave to union demands and pledge allegiance (and Maryland taxpayers’ wallets) to Kirwan’s recommendations, which include universal pre-kindergarten for low-income children, toughening teacher certification standards and stricter school oversight, they must first ask two questions. One, does evidence show the prescriptions will work? And two, how will they pay for them if worthwhile?


First, has anyone noticed how the Kirwan recommendations are treated as if they are a holy text? Pledging support for them was a central campaign promise of state politicians last November, starting from the top with Gov. Larry Hogan and his Democratic challenger Ben Jealous down to local elections. To criticize them would be to commit career suicide for politicians on both sides of the aisle, which speaks to how they need to be analyzed particularly closely. Any theory achieving as much reverence as Kirwan’s recommendations by definition has pole-vaulted the realm of policy idea able to be debated into belief system immune from criticism.


The biggest takeaway from the Kirwan Commission is that Maryland schools need another $4 billion to teach students to the toughest national and international standards. Experience over the last 20-plus years should teach us otherwise. Spending on public education increased 45 percent over that time, during which Maryland repeatedly toughened its standards, increased the number of teachers by 36 percent and staff by a whopping 60 percent and decreased the teacher/student ratio from 16.9 students per teacher to 14.8 students per teacher. (See “An Analysis of the Kirwan Commission Recommendations” by the Maryland Public Policy Institute pages 1-5.)


What happened?


Student performance stagnated and chronic disparities between African-American and Hispanic students and their Asian and white peers persisted. Fewer than half scored proficient on statewide tests last year. And the fact that an average of almost 52 percent of all Maryland students need remedial classes in both basic English and math at the state’s two- and four-year colleges and universities speaks to the problem as well.


So why will more money and tougher standards work this time if they didn’t work before? The commission calls for schools to be held accountable, but provides very little guidance on how to do that. Besides, once something is passed it’s almost impossible to change, regardless of student outcomes as the past two decades have shown.


“Reforming” schools in Maryland always means more money and more of the same instead of openness to ideas that have worked in Maryland on a small scale or in other states.


And we haven’t broached the topic of paying for the recommendations. Back in 2002, when lawmakers passed another comprehensive plan to improve education, they guaranteed spending for it without a source of revenue. The result has been chronic budget shortfalls for over a decade as the formulas guaranteeing a certain level of funding outpaced revenue growth.


Since over 80 percent of Maryland’s budget is mandated spending, it leaves little wiggle room for other key government services outside of education and health care. Plus, the Hogan administration expects a $902 million structural deficit in 2021 and a $1.6 billion one by 2024, and projected state revenue was last week lowered by $270 million through the end of the coming fiscal year.


Given the fiscal outlook, the only way to raise the money for the recommendations is to raise taxes.  Hogan’s resounding reelection in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans 2-to-1 speaks to the fact that Marylanders don’t want higher taxes after years of new ones under the previous administration.


Before legislators force Maryland taxpayers to pay $4 billion more for public education, they should review past student outcomes. That means Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. and House Speaker Michael Busch should withdraw legislation to boost education spending by $1 billion over the next two years.


Maryland children can and should wait for reforms that improve their learning rather than those that are politically expedient and will make Maryland even more expensive and less competitive. Money into the system has little correlation to what children know when they graduate from Maryland schools. It’s an easy lie to equate the two, but when fewer than half of public school students aren’t proficient in basic reading and math, it’s one that should be exposed and discarded, no matter the political cost.


Marta H. Mossburg is a visiting fellow at the Maryland Public Policy Institute. Reach her at mmossburg@mdpolicy.org.