Maryland Association of Counties Director Michael Sanderson left little doubt in his Spy interview regarding the level of concern for funding Blueprint – and fiscal year 2024 begins July 1.
Too many students had been underperforming on standardized state testing in Maryland. In 2016 William “Brit” Kirwan, former Chancellor of the University System of Maryland, was appointed chair of the commission charged with “assessing Maryland’s Pre-K – 12 education system and making policy and resource recommendations to ensure that Maryland children achieve at the level of students in the world’s best performing school systems.”
Thousands marched in Annapolis in support of proposals offered by the Commission on Excellence and Innovation in Education in 2019. And in 2020 the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future was passed by the General Assembly, vetoed by the governor, and then passed without his signature in 2021. Governor Hogan believed these efforts to be “good and worthwhile,” but the Blueprint wouldn’t be funded without a plan to pay for it.
COVID had taken a toll; but federal funds would become a primary, if temporary, source of revenue, and by fiscal year 2022 the state’s structural deficit had become “a long-term structural surplus” with rainy day funds at a level never seen before. Governor Hogan’s funding for K-12 education of $8.15 billion and $1 billion for school construction for fiscal year 2023 was welcomed.
Upon taking office on January 17, 2023, Governor Wes Moore discovered an unexpected level of “rainy day funds.” With federal funds remaining the state’s largest share of general fund revenues and Blueprint approved for funding in fiscal year 2023, our fiscal year 2024 budget includes $8.8 billion for PreK-12 education, $1.1 billion for school construction, and an additional $600 million for Blueprint funding.
There were suggestions of cost increases averaging 2.9 percent, but counties had understandably been frustrated by not knowing what to expect. They had a better idea of funding with detailed tables provided, but county budgets would be determined only once counties and schools worked together to determine missions most suitable for their districts.
As Thomas Porter, Kent County Public Schools Assistant Coordinator for Accountability and Implementation advised, “There are mandates, but we do have flexibility. Plans must be tailored to meet the needs within each jurisdiction.” Each jurisdiction also has a template for submitting their Blueprint implementation plan.” The next plan will be submitted on March 14, 2024, and will focus upon fiscal years 2025 through 2027.
As Talbot, Kent, and Caroline had been identified as counties that could receive less state funding, Talbot County’s positive experience seemed worth sharing, Pupil numbers and local tax rates remain factors in the funding equation; but with Blueprint’s goal of promoting equality in education, county wealth has also become a factor.
A brief (and appreciated) reference to “trial by fire” followed the approval of Talbot County’s fiscal year 2024 budget, and expressions of relief and gratitude have since prevailed. Education expenses are up 8% ($46,9 to $50.9 million), but general fund expenditures for fiscal year 2024 are up 14.3% overall. On the revenue side, there’s also three times more state funding for education. That $3.9 million not only covers most of the increase in education spending, education has become a slightly smaller share of the county’s general fund.
We might wonder if this effort is worthwhile. Teachers may be leaving the profession, but salaries would seem to be competitive in Maryland. They’re lower in Delaware, West Virginia, and Virginia, but higher in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
Maryland has also been identified as one of our nation’s wealthiest states – first place for highest household income according to the 2020 Census, and 10th for per capita income in 2022, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis. Also ranked 14th for spending on education, there could be room for improvement.
Expanding early childhood education remains a priority, and providing all children the opportunity to reach their full promise and potential, ensuring college and career readiness, providing resources for children in need, and retaining quality teachers and staff are all “pillars” of the Blueprint for America’s Future.
As Governor Moore reminded us, “The principles of the Blueprint are smart, and they are right. We have to make sure that we are providing a world class education for all of our students.” He also recognizes that “education is central to providing an economy that works,” and “the way it is funded has to be sustainable.”
Federal funds are 31% of Maryland’s current general fund revenues, down slightly since fiscal year 2021. Income taxes are generally the state’s primary source of revenue. They will be again, and Governor Wes Moore appreciates Maryland’s AAA bond rating. Debt service is just 1.7% of Maryland’s general fund, and with revenue estimates updated, the reserve amount became larger in the amended fiscal year 2024 budget.
Federal debt was not only justified to sustain our population during a pandemic, it has allowed us to move forward and reminded us that we are in this together. We’re not only likely to hear fewer complaints for funding education without county input; more of us earning a living wage will reduce government spending, and consumer demand is the primary driver of our economy, That’s something to celebrate this week.
Carol Voyles is a graphic designer/illustrator who retired to the Eastern Shore and became interested in politics. She serves as communications chair for the Talbot County Democratic Forum and lives in Easton.