Other states take Maryland to school

Originally published in the Frederick News-Post

There are just two problems with the Kirwan Commission blueprint to reform Maryland’s public schools:  it won’t work and it will break the bank.  These trivialities aside, all is well.

The plan’s fatal flaw was identified by one of the commission’s own, Chester Finn, who admitted he was disappointed at its “refusal to… recommend any form of school choice.”  In other words, the commission doubled down on Maryland’s unwise commitment to monopoly in public education, further insulating it from competition’s healthy effects on quality and cost.

States that embrace parental choice in K-12 education show exactly how powerful and cost effective that can be.  We in the Land of Pleasant Living, on the other hand, see the damaging consequences of trusting self-protective bureaucrats and self-seeking unions to guide policy in this crucial sector.

The latest National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) makes clear that Maryland’s public schools are doing less with more.  As of 2017 (the latest year for which nationwide census data are available), Maryland spent 22% more (on a per-pupil basis) and paid its teachers 28% more than the national average.  From 2012 to 2017, the state increased per-pupil spending 9%; meanwhile, its NAEP scores have been in steady decline.  Fourth-grade reading scores, for example, have plunged 11 points since 2011, while fourth-grade math scores are down 7 points.

Arizona and Florida, on the other hand, respectively spend 34% and 26% less per pupil than the national average, while their NAEP scores are trending upward.  Arizona’s fourth-grade reading scores are up 4 points and math scores up 3 points since 2011; that state once trailed Maryland’s scores significantly but has all but closed the gap.  Florida also trailed Maryland’s performance in 2011, and now surpasses it by 5 points in fourth-grade reading and 6 points in math.

So while students in progressive Maryland regress, the kids in a couple of fiscally-conservative states are actually progressing.  How?  Via enhanced school choice and competition, which research shows causes everyone to step up their game.  Arizona and Florida rank one-two in the nation in educational choice share (the proportion of K–12 students enrolled in an education savings account, school voucher, or tax-credit scholarship program).  Maryland ranks 18th of the 30 states which tolerate such choice programs.

Revealingly, when its devastating NAEP scores were posted, Baltimore’s school superintendent said she would send a delegation to study “best practices” in Washington, D.C., where NAEP scores improved in three of four categories.  She will learn that the District has nearly as many students enrolled in charter schools – which must compete for students or go out of business – as in regular public schools, and roughly double the number in the entire state of Maryland.  Competition is, indeed, a best practice.

Then there is the matter of Kirwan’s crushing financial burden for state and local governments.  The commission’s spin doctors like to say that the plan’s costs will rise to about $4 billion over ten years – leaving the impression that’s the total bill.  In reality, that’s the one-year cost of new obligations in year ten; the cumulative total for the period is $31.9 billion – at least.  The dirty little secret buried in the 233-page Kirwan report is that this is a low-ball figure, after netting out a total of $11.8 billion in promised “savings” and “offsets.”

What savings?  For example, $764 million per year (by 2030) from a hoped-for decline in special ed costs, and more millions assumed from elimination of some stipends for teachers, reductions of central staff, and various “overlaps” of programmatic spending deemed redundant after new Kirwan initiatives take root.  It is naïve in the extreme to suppose that such promises will survive the political process in the next legislative session, much less the coming decade.

But there are signs that some government officials – though eager to lock up the bloc votes promised by teachers’ unions – are starting to realize that Kirwan is a budget buster.  That will be especially true in the long run, thanks to the added pension obligations resulting from the plan’s bulked-up staffing levels.  Maryland’s pension obligations are only 35% funded right now, with over $117 billion unfunded; the post-Kirwan burden for future Maryland taxpayers is frightening to contemplate.

More troubling, however, is that the plan’s extravagant costs carry little future benefit for Maryland’s students.  As Mr. Finn, again, has pointed out, Kirwan leaves undisturbed “Maryland’s top-down, district-based control of K–12 education, an arrangement that disempowers parents, punishes schools of choice, creates inequity between counties, and confines the principals of district schools to administrative matters rather than functioning as true executives.”  Following this blueprint would build a bridge to nowhere for Maryland’s schoolchildren.

Stephen J.K. Walters is Chief Economist at the Maryland Public Policy Institute and the author of "Boom Towns: Restoring the Urban American Dream ."