Hey, big spender
We are going to see increasing in-fighting among big government types as big-spending school districts compete for resources with the rest of the agenda supported by the public fisc. Schools are increasingly going to lose those battles, which they’re not used to. Today’s example comes from Montgomery County, Maryland, where I live.
Democrats on the county council have been butting heads with the school board for months over skyrocketing education budgets, culminating in a battle to repeal Maryland’s maintenance of effort requirement:
But the details of Maryland’s maintenance of effort law have proved unwieldy in tough budget times. Its authors never anticipated a housing bubble nor articulated a logical process for working through it.
The debate has largely played out in Montgomery County. The county’s nationally recognized schools have long been a generously protected fiscal priority, and the county council exceeded minimum spending levels by hundreds of millions of dollars over the past decade. When the budget outlook worsened, though, the county council said it couldn’t maintain the same level of investment.
“The county government was hurt by the fact that we were doing over and above what we were required to do,” said council president Valerie Ervin (D-Silver Spring), a former school board member.
Montgomery County provides a cautionary tale to those who see resources as the primary lever for improving K-12 education. MCPS is a very expensive district but not particularly wasteful on conventional measures — in fact, it won an award for good business practices and performance management. Yet despite high local tax rates and a driven base of parents, there’s no more money to continue MoCo’s very conventional brand of reform.
States and districts all around the country are trying new things to address stagnant budgets: hybrid classrooms, targeted increases in class size, changes to benefits, and so on. MCPS has great human capital and is widely recognized as one of the most innovative large districts in the country. Think what they could come up with if administrators and school board members would stop begging for resources the county doesn’t have and start looking for new ways to deliver high quality at an affordable cost.
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About the Editor
Bernard Lee Schwartz Policy Fellow
Chris Tessone was a Bernard Lee Schwartz Policy Fellow and the Director of Finance of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. He has strong interests in governance and education finance, especially teacher compensation and school facilities finance.
May 16, 2013