Maryland Education Spending by the Numbers Part 2

In Part 1, I showed that the explosion in Maryland education spending–$4.2 billion since 2002 through the Bridge to Excellence or Thornton mandates–hasn’t delivered to taxpayers the bang for the buck they should expect.

Drilling deeper into the data, we find that this massive amount of increased spending hasn’t closed the achievement gap–the ostensible goal of Thornton–between White and minority students and between low income-students and their higher income peers.

Furthermore, the explosion of education spending (two thirds of Maryland’s general fund) has created a huge strain on the state’s budget, is a key component of the state’s chronic structural deficits, and is crowding out other programs.

Billions of Dollars Spent on Persistent Achievement Gap

On the 4th and 8th grade reading and math assessments, Maryland showed minimal to no improvement in the achievement gap between Whites and minority students and between higher income and low-income students. In some areas the disparity increased.

Fourth grade Hispanic students did make gains in slightly closing the achievement gap with their White counterparts.

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Between 2003 and 2011, Hispanic students closed the gap with White students by four points on the NAEP math assessment, and six points on the NAEP reading assessment.

The achievement gap between African-American and White 4th graders dropped 2 points on the NAEP reading assessment. However, the 28-point gap between White and African Americans on the math assessment remained consistent over the last eight years.

The achievement disparity also closed between low-income and higher income 4th graders (as determined by eligibility for National School Lunch Program). Low-income students closed the gap on the NAEP math assessment by 3 points, and on the NAEP reading assessment closed the gap by four points.

Those gains seem impressive, however, they become less so when you put them in context.
For example, while Hispanic fourth graders made gains, the reading gap disparity between them and White fourth graders, is 16 points, and in math it is 13 points. The achievement gap between African-American fourth graders and White fourth graders in reading is 29 points.

The reading and math disparity between low-income and higher income fourth graders is just as stark. Despite the modest advance, the reading gap over the last eight years stands at 27 points, and the math gap at 25 points.

By the time those students reach the eighth grade those minimal gains are all but erased.

On the NAEP 8th-grade math assessment the gap between White and African-American students increased from 33 to 36 points between 2003 and 2011. The gap between Whites and Hispanics increased from 27 to 30 points over that same period.

The 8th-grade reading gap between Whites and Hispanics over the last eight years remained at 20 points, and the increased one point from 26 to 27.

The gap between lower income and higher income students also increased between 2003 and 2011. The disparity gap increased three points from 30 to 33 on NAEP 8th grade math assessment, and the increased one point from 26 to 27 on the NAEP 8th grade reading assessment.

Spending and NAEP data confirms what data from the rest of the country tells us: the more money we spend on education does not translate into increased educational outcomes.

Despite this stark fact, pandering Maryland politicians trot out Maryland’s much vaunted and number one ranking by Education Week, anytime there is a whiff of cutting education spending.

Yet when you dig into the Maryland specific data in Education Week’s Quality Counts Report all that glimmers is not gold.

In fact, Maryland only received an overall grade of B+ on the Quality Counts Report. According to the report, Maryland ranked last in the nation (50th) on the poverty gap for NAEP 8th grade math scores, and 34th in the nation for the math gap change for that assessment test. Even in the area of 4th grade reading where Maryland’s best gains were made the state only ranked 34th in the nation.

Quality Counts number one ranked school system ranks a middling 22nd in the country for high school graduation rate, and worse, Maryland ranks 34th in the nation for change in graduation rate.

Even Maryland high school graduates need remedial help. According to a Maryland Higher Education Commission report on the college performance of of new Maryland high school graduates, 61 percent of core community college students (those who took a college preparatory track in high school) needed remedial math instruction. Fifteen percent of core students attending a Maryland four-year institution needed remedial math instruction. The additional cost to taxpayers for this remediation is $90 million annually.

Straining Budgets and Crowding Out other Programs

Education spending consumes roughly two thirds of Maryland’s general fund budget. Also, the mandated increases in the Thornton spending formulas translate roughly into the amount of the chronic billion dollar plus structural deficits Maryland faces.

The Maryland data confirms that increased spending in does not equal increased achievement out. Rather what really matters is how the money is spent, and other factors outside of funding. Indeed, as an independent study of the increased spending in the Bridge to Excellence Act found, more than half the increased spending went not to the classroom but to teacher salary and benefits.

Education spending in Maryland is crowding out other programs like infrastructure. Governor O’Malley’s new stalking horse is a 15-cents gasoline tax increase to replenish the transportation trust fund he’s raided to cover general fund deficits.

Instead of raising taxes, Maryland could cut and cap education spending at 2008 levels. 2008, it should be noted, was the first year Maryland schools earned the ballyhooed number one ranking from Education Week.

For example, spending capped at 2008 levels for FY 2011 would have saved $570 million, which could be used toward infrastructure spending or other areas of the budget shortchanged by fund raids and other budgeting gimmicks.

$570 million would have more than covered the $264 million in Medicaid payments to hospitals O’Malley slashed, which turned into a tax increase on hospital patients and health insurance premiums.

Another solution is to move responsibility for teacher pension and other post employment benefits (OPEB) from the state pension system to the counties, which negotiate the contracts. Maryland’s pension and retiree healthcare systems have $34 billion in unfunded liabilities, and one study showed the pension system running out of money in 13 years. Moving these costs off the state’s books would go a long way in shoring up the state’s pension fund and reduce future liabilities and strains on the state budget.

Moving teacher pension and healthcare costs to the counties also has the added value of creating real spending transparency for taxpayers, as the true amount of what we spend on education would no longer be hidden on the state’s books.

Maryland does not have a revenue problem it has a spending problem. Since 1997 Maryland has increased general fund spending by 98% while revenues increased only by 78%. If Maryland is to get its fiscal house in order it must look to cut spending, starting with the largest item in the budget: education spending. Real cuts, not reductions in planned increases must be made.

The solutions are quite simple. However it’s the politics that is hard, for it would require Maryland’s Democratic rulers to buck the powerful public sector unions, who put them in office.

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