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By Amanda Litvinov
State-by-state comparisons on education spending can be very misleading.
That’s one of the things that Maryland educators have had to help lawmakers and the public understand. Although Maryland’s per-pupil education spending looks steady in blunt comparisons to other states, that doesn’t mean that the costs of educating their students are actually being met.
In fact, the recently completed Kirwan Commission Adequacy Study shows $2.9 billion in unmet needs in Maryland’s public schools.
“People find that number shocking, and they should,” says Dona Ostenso, a veteran educator with 29 years of experience from Calvert County.
As a fourth-grade teacher, she’s responsible for teaching her students “the billions” in their math lessons. As president of the Calvert Education Association, she’s taken on the responsibility of educating adults about the billions that the school system has been shorted, and how underfunding schools hurts students.
“The community needs to better understand the Kirwan work, because it’s so critical to the quality of their schools,” says Ostenso. “And educators are taking the lead in informing people because, in some ways, we’re in the best position to explain what it’s all about.”
The Kirwan Commission is the 25-member board charged with rewriting Maryland’s education funding formula. The Commission was formed after the passage of a 2015 bill, strongly supported by the Maryland State Education Association (MSEA), that required a study on the real costs of educating students.
Professor Bruce Baker, a school funding expert at Rutgers University, points out that one reason most states don’t fund schools properly is because they don’t actually know how much it costs to educate students currently in their schools in accordance with state standards.
And most lawmakers fail to understand that schools educating kids living in poverty need more resources. Very few state school finance systems take that into account.
Maryland educators saw it as their duty to help people understand how inadequate resources directly affect students.
“It helps to give people some specific examples to understand why our school funding system needs to be transformed,” says Ostenso. “I remind people that 15 years ago—the last time our school funding formula was rewritten—we didn’t have to worry about having Wi Fi in every classroom. The number of our students living in poverty since then has ballooned. How can an outmoded funding formula account for all of that?”
In September and October 2017, the Kirwan Commission hosted four public hearings around the state. Educators did not let that opportunity to provide input go by. MSEA helped locals organize members to attend and make their case for investing in schools, under the banner of “This Is Our Moment.”
Ostenso took an active role in the campaign, organizing 40 members to travel by bus or drive to the closest Kirwan hearing, in Largo, Md.
“We’re not a huge local, but we really made an impression when we filed in wearing our bright red T-shirts,” said Ostenso.
“Four of our educators had the opportunity to speak, and they talked about caseloads and class sizes, and the fact that French teachers are teaching Spanish,” she said. “All of these concerns lead back to inadequate funding.”
MSEA reports that more than 15,000 of its members attended building meetings and shared their funding priorities, which MSEA shared directly with the Kirwan Commission. The Commission is expected to release final recommendations this spring, and the state legislature will debate and vote on those recommendations during the 2019 legislative session.
Gov. Larry Hogan’s budget proposal for FY 2019, released in January, was his fourth in a row that redirects casino gaming revenue—which is supposed to go to increasing education funding—to other parts of his budget. In Hogan’s four years, $1.4 billion of gaming revenue has been similarly redirected.
In response, MSEA launched the Fix the Fund campaign to pass a constitutional amendment that would direct casino gaming money to increase funding for education rather than being diverted elsewhere in the budget. If the amendment passes, it would mean an additional $500 million annually for public schools.
For its next show of force, MSEA is organizing a march to Fix the Fund in Annapolis on the evening of March 19.
No matter what it takes, Dona Ostenso, like so many of her colleagues, will not be deterred.
“We’ve got to keep pushing for real change in funding,” she said. “Part of that is to support public school advocates running for office in the 2018 elections.”
“If lawmakers could just be me for a week, they would see quite clearly what we need in the budget,” said Ostenso. “Short of that, they simply need to listen more to educators before they pass education policy and budgets.”