More misguided spending will not fix Maryland schools

Originally published in the Baltimore Sun

James V. Shuls, Ph.D. Jun 24, 2018

Public education funding is emerging as a central issue in Maryland this year. When the Kirwan Commission released interim recommendations to dramatically transform Maryland’s K-12 schools in March, its supporters closed ranks and quickly endorsed the call for higher spending, new government programs and more standardized tests for state children.


Their enthusiasm is admirable, but the consequences of their agenda should give Marylanders pause.


In a months-long analysis on behalf of the Maryland Public Policy Institute, I found scant evidence showing that the Kirwan Commission’s recommendations will benefit Maryland children and families, while ample evidence shows that Maryland’s historic school spending increase since 2002 has produced disappointing results.


Our analysis finds that Maryland already invests big in education. Maryland ranks 6th in the nation in teacher salaries and 10th in the nation in per-pupil spending, according to EdBuild. From 1998 to 2014, our research reveals Maryland increased education operating expenses by $3.8 billion in inflation adjusted dollars — a 45 percent increase. Yet the Kirwan Commission laments how poorly Maryland schools have performed over that time. The only conclusion to draw, then, is that bigger school budgets do not translate into better student results in Maryland.


Indeed, the research shows that Maryland’s school spending increases actually encouraged administrative bloat. The number of teachers in Maryland increased 36 percent from 1992 to 2015, yet the number of administrative staff grew by 60 percent. Thus, a rapidly growing share of taxpayer dollars is now spent supporting administrative staff who don’t actually teach students.


The Kirwan Commission also endorses a major expansion of pre-Kindergarten. Doing so may cost taxpayers upward of $1 billion in new educational spending, yet evidence from similar state programs fails to show lasting impacts. Students in Tennessee who did not attend pre-K actually fared better than their pre-K peers in learning gains by second and third grade. While pre-K can certainly help some families, a wise initial step would be to evaluate the effectiveness of existing pre-K programs to determine what works and how to replicate it.


Further, Marylanders may not want expanded pre-K given the impact it will have on their pocketbooks and public services. A public opinion survey released by the Maryland Public Policy Institute in April shows that Marylanders overwhelmingly oppose expansion if it is paid for by cutting other government services or through tax increases.


Seventy percent of Marylanders are less likely to support expanding pre-K if it means cutting public safety funding, cutting funding for roads and transportation (70 percent), or raising taxes such as income and property taxes (59 percent), according to the survey. The Kirwan Commission has advocated for pre-K expansion but has not been transparent to the public about its price tag.


The overarching premise of the Kirwan Commission’s report is that the education bureaucracy must grow. The commission repeatedly calls for a new state office of oversight, a new commission, a new task force and new powers reserved for the state to regulate teachers and students. This will diminish any freedom that teachers have in the classroom and homogenize schools, stamping out the very creativity that might help students in troubled schools succeed.


The Kirwan Commission may actually be right about one concept: making sure good teachers are compensated accordingly. Investing more in quality teachers is appropriate, yet teacher pay increases in Maryland have consistently lagged behind school system benefit increases and total operating expenditures, according to our analysis. Maryland should reform pension obligations and eliminate administrative bloat and reinvest the savings in pay raises for quality teachers.


Second, Maryland must address tenure and dismissal of low-performing teachers. Economist Eric Hanushek has shown that removing the bottom five to eight percent of teachers and replacing them with a teacher of average quality would help the U.S. rise to the level of the top countries in the world in math and science.


Lastly, introduce market-based pay for teachers; this would allow teachers to earn more money by teaching in high-need subject areas, high-need schools, or by being a highly-effective teacher.


The Kirwan Commission and its advocates have essentially conceded that the massive school spending increases since 2003 failed to produce desired results. Maryland citizens, therefore, should greet this most recent demand for more spending with extreme skepticism. Only by rewarding high-performing teachers and scaling back administrative bloat can Maryland respect both students’ needs and taxpayers’ wallets.


James V. Shuls is an assistant professor and the graduate program director of educational leadership and policy studies at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. His email address is