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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