Maryland Just Made a Sad Statement About Our Priorities for Kids

May 17th 2015

Alex Mierjeski

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) drew the ire of education proponents Thursday with a decision to divert $68 million originally earmarked for schools into the state's public employee pension program––which he described as an unfunded priority in the state. 

The decision came despite protest from school officials and prominent public figures, including Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who took the move as a direct hit against an education system in need of expansion. Hogan said that trying to fix education problems by throwing money at them instead of investing in the pension system would be "absolutely irresponsible, and it will not happen on my watch."

The money would have come from a $200 million package set aside by Maryland lawmakers for top priorities including school funding, a cushion for state worker pay cuts, and a host of health-care initiatives, the Baltimore Sun reported

"Given how the needs of our children have been highlighted by the events of the past few weeks, I hoped that the governor would have agreed with the General Assembly that these dollars are critical for expanded educational opportunities," Rawlings-Blake said in a statement. Had Hogan approved the funds, Baltimore would have received $11.6 million to boost schools. 

Teachers unions criticized the decision as well, saying the restricted funding would mean fewer teachers, higher costs for parents, and larger classes, as well as the elimination of some summer programs. Hogan's approval would have dispersed the nearly $70 million to schools across Maryland jurisdictions, including in three of the largest: Baltimore City, Prince George's, and Montgomery counties.

Senate president Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D) described the decision as a "declaration of war on the children of the state of Maryland."

In response, Hogan called the opposition to his decision the culmination of "a heavily financed smear campaign" against him, pointing out that "[t]here is no magical pot of money that can simply be released or doled out. They're asking us to rob from the pension fund," he told journalists in Annapolis. Hogan also pointed to the fact that Maryland spends handsomely on education––$7.5 billion each year on K-12––while cutting spending in other areas. He also accused Baltimore education officials of mismanaging millions, pointing to a March Baltimore Sun investigation into $42 million spent in generous leave policies.

Hogan said his administration would "continue to work diligently to rein in spending," and work to change to political climate in the state's capital, Annapolis, that he said led the state on its course toward financial turmoil. The money was part of a measure passed in April by the General Assembly that would mandate the state to fully fund a program to provide extra money to the state's most expensive schools, according to the Washington Post. Hogan promised not to veto that measure, but announced that he would not follow its directive until next fiscal year, calling more mandated spending a "bad idea."

The cuts come as new funding was approved for a juvenile prison facility.

The decision ended weeks of campaigning by advocates pressuring Hogan to approve the school spending, but it also came a day after state officials approved a $30 million plan for a 60-bed jail for Baltimore youth charged as adults. The plan addresses concerns over housing youths in adult facilities, where they are often secluded and deprived of school or other youth services, which the U.S. Justice Department deemed a breach of the law.

Advocates criticized the move, which stands as a bleak, bitter irony in the face of absent extra funding for schools, as a step in the wrong direction.

"It's definitely not [what] we want," Kara Aanenson, director of advocacy a Community Law In Action, a Baltimore juvenile justice non-profit, told the Baltimore Sun. "We're really hopeful that [we] will be able to change the law and we won't need to use it for this population." 

On Tuesday, Gov. Hogan signed a law that some said would put more children charged as adults into juvenile justice facilities, according to the Sun. The project, which costs nearly half of the $68 million earmarked last month for education, is a corrective measure to better house minor offenders, whose holding conditions have been the subject of an eight-year DOJ oversight program to improve conditions. In March, the DOJ criticized one detention center that will be updated under the new plan of "continuing to house youths charged as adults alongside the general population," the Sun reports.

The number of youths who spend time in a jail while waiting for their trial has dropped 39 percent between 2011 and 2014, according to the Sun. It's that population that the new facility would house, and in some backwards way, could be seen as the recipients of expanded education spending: a spokesperson from the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services told the Sun that "the department is committed to housing juveniles charged as adults in a new building that will include classrooms, program space, and medical and recreational areas. It's a facility that's vastly superior to the current location."