ANNAPOLIS – Gov.-elect Larry Hogan’s transition team has curtains pulled tight over the budget until after he takes office next week, but many education groups are gearing up to fight for school programs they feel are particularly endangered this year.
The Maryland State Education Association, previously known as the Maryland State Teachers Association, is running a radio campaign and petition drive to protect school funding in Maryland.
The petition calls for Hogan and the General Assembly — with a notably high number of new members and Republicans among them — to “step up and do more for our schools” and has, according to their website, more than 11,000 signatures.
While the Maryland State Education Association has used this strategy to drive several special-issue campaigns before, this time is different, said Sean Johnson, government relations director for the group.
“We started the campaign prior to the session,” Johnson said. “A lot of work and progress has gone into making our schools what they are. Many of those policy and funding decision-makers may not be returning to town.”
With more than one third of the 188 legislators sworn in to the General Assembly on Wednesday being new and forecasts for heavy budget cuts, Johnson said the goal was to get the word out early.
Johnson said he hopes Hogan will fund The Maryland Association of Boards of Education’s full budget request of just under $5.5 billion, which is about one third of the total general fund budget.
John Woolums, the director of governmental relations for The Maryland Association of Boards of Education, said that he recognizes the heftiness of the request and understands the potential effects a severe budget shortfall may have on education.
“We are concerned about the preservation of integral proponents of the Maryland education system that are not mandated by the state,” Woolums said, particularly the Geographic Cost of Education Index, a formula that provides additional state funding to local school systems where educational resource costs are above the state average.
Democrats were strongly in favor of the idea in 2014, but it did not go to vote. This time around, if a bill is presented to a legislature on a tight budget and with a larger number of seats filled with Republicans, support may not be as great, he said.
Vice Chairman of the Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee Sen. Paul G. Pinsky, D-Prince George’s, supports mandating the index and said that he is very worried about the education budget.
“We (legislators) have the power to cut funding, but not to bring it back,” Pinsky said. He eagerly awaits Hogan’s budget announcement expected on Thursday.
To Sen. Edward R. Reilly, R-Anne Arundel, control over the budget is what makes the governor in Maryland so powerful. But rumors about budget cuts are just that — rumors.
“Everyone up and down the food chain is nervous,” Reilly said. “Tax cuts might be coming. A revenue shortfall might be coming, and that would put pressure on all aspects.”
Precautions are already being taken. In a special session, the University System of Maryland Board of Regents on Friday voted to approve mid-year tuition adjustments for spring semester 2015.
The current state deficit is about $750 million and has the potential to rise to $1 billion if no spending adjustments are made, University of Maryland, College Park President Wallace Loh said in an email Friday announcing $15.6 million in cuts his administration plans to make this year to compensate.
“For now, we, and all state employees, must make sacrifices,” Loh said.
Freshman Delegate Benjamin Brooks, D-Baltimore County, said that he would most likely vote in favor of any legislation that benefits the education system.
“The shortest distance to prosperity from poverty is education,” said Brooks, maintaining that cutting funding for education would not only shortchange the students, but the state.
Educating the new legislators of the 435th General Assembly and reaching across the political aisle may not be the only problems facing education, though.
Generally, during the legislative session, “teachers definitely don’t know that decisions are being made,” said Pat Yongpradit, director of education at Code.org and former high school computer science teacher and curriculum team lead for Montgomery County Public Schools. “They don’t know how the governor is leaning. Legislators are cooking up things and the general public has to live with what comes out unless they know what’s happening.”
Yongpradit said that he would have been happy to retire from Montgomery County Public Schools, but was offered an opportunity to promote computer science education at a federal level.
“Maryland was No. 1, three or four times in a row, but now we’re third,” said Yongpradit, referring to Education Week’s annual report of the best public school systems by state. “I don’t know if that’s cause for alarm, but we’re doing great in comparison (to other states).”
Hogan is expected to give a briefing of the budget on Thursday, one day after his inauguration.