A Maryland state senator says criticism of public school funding ignores the reality that private institutions spend far more money per student by Stephen Janis and Taya Graham
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STEPHEN JANIS: As the funding controversy over Baltimore schools continues, The Real News is taking an in-depth look at how the City and State fall short and why city schools seem to be in a perpetual state of fiscal crisis. In our series of interviews with whistle-blower teachers we’ve learned about mice-infested classrooms, without heat, water, or adequate supplies. But amid those conditions the system is also facing a $130 million deficit, making the question of how and why city schools lack proper financing even more acute. Currently Maryland funds nearly $1 billion in the school system’s $1.2 million budget. But is it enough, and should, and could the State do more? To find out we spoke to a key policy maker in the State capital of Annapolis, State Senator, Bill Fergusson — who gave us a decidedly different take on the problem of funding public education — one that has less to do with State support and more of the long-term trends in Baltimore that may be difficult to reverse. It’s more than just the fiscal issues that we are facing you? BILL FERGUSON: Sure, the problem is not a simple one to fix. There is no specific issue that created something. It’s not a matter of missing money or bad management. The problem is complex because it’s built over many years of policy choices, totally unrelated to education, that have impacted how we fund Baltimore City public schools. So, I would say the first challenge is that the revenue that the city schools receives, while it increased pretty dramatically from 2003 to 2008, after the Great Recession there were policy choices made to lower the amount that it would increase each year in order to fund other priorities like Medicare and Medicaid and, you know, protecting the environment. Things that I think many of us would agree are also important priorities. So, it wasn’t a cut to the city schools but limiting the increased revenue lead to structural problems. Because, obviously, costs continue to go up, just is the nature of doing business. The second piece is that the city has been losing population. Even though we have sort of smoothed the curve and maybe are keeping steady, the number of young people in the city, school-aged students, has not kept up. So, we’ve seen a decline. Again, we have sort of stopped that decline for a little while. But over the last few years unfortunately, we’ve seen just in the last two 2,000 less students. So, that means less revenue because our formula is based on the number of students in the system. But it also means we have a system that is built bigger than the number of students that we have. So, the costs are greater than they should be. Affecting change within a bureaucracy though doesn’t happen overnight. It’s not like there were 2,000 kids in two schools that you could shut down and lay those folks off, and everything balances. The loss of students is distributed relatively equally across the city. And so that’s where you get into these structural problems. The last thing is that the city made some very intentional choices. Especially back in 2008, ’09 and ’10, when revenues were increasing that were choices made to better prepare kids for success. So, I think the first one is going to full-day pre-K, the only pays for half-day. That’s one of the fixes that we’re looking at to backfill some money for the city this year. We went into school choice — trying to ensure that families had options for their young people in middle and high school. That came with transportation costs that were potentially unexpected. And then we passed what I believe is a fantastic contract for teachers; the implementation of that contract has led to costs escalating at a faster rate than anticipated. So, this is a fundamental, structural problem of the formula. And I think there’s been a lot of play around sort of tiffs and pilots and real wealth versus not real wealth. Really though, and I think that this was sort of lost in the conversation, when we look at wealth it is on a per pupil basis. So, you can be hurt with the wealth factor by: increasing wealth, or, because you divide by the number of students in the system, decreasing the student population. So, you can have the exact same wealth over the prior year, but if you have less students, each student looks wealthier and therefore, our formula punishes what looks like growing wealth, even though it’s just declining enrolment. STEPHEN JANIS: Right. BILL FERGUSSON: And when you look at sort of how the formula has played out, the declining enrolment component, because it’s both on the amount of money you get per student, and the impact that wealth equalization has on the whole formula, that loss of 2,000 students over the last two years — that is the biggest single driver to the challenge that the city faces right now. STEPHEN JANIS: So, really the TIFS you don’t think are going to have an impact when you’ve got a $600 million TIF that’s… BILL FERGUSSON: The impact of it in the assessments because of when it will be assessed and we don’t do assessments until once every three years, and the actual $600 million in bonds and infrastructure that would go out, you know, 30 years from now could be a problem? Potentially yes, because you’ll have to phase in those assessments over time. The key, though, is we have got to increase our population and we have to make city schools attractive for all families again. And if we can increase our city’s student enrolment, it is the most sustainable way that we can ensure a balanced budget. STEPHEN JANIS: So, what you’re saying right now is really we have more infrastructure than we need, and that we’re supporting more infrastructure; whether it be staffing, or whatever, buildings, than we need. Is that what you’re saying? BILL FERGUSSON: Yes. And this is the challenging part of how to fix this problem. We have by far the most number of schools with 350 or less students across the State. When you look at Baltimore City I think we’re at 183 programs. Somewhere around 15 to 20% of those programs are small schools with 350 or less students. Other jurisdictions don’t have that challenge. Now, Carroll County, which is also losing enrolment in their public school system, is starting to face a similar issue. And they’ve recently had to close a school. STEPHEN JANIS: Right. BILL FERGUSSON: There is nothing at all more challenging than closing a school in a community. STEPHEN JANIS: Sure. BILL FERGUSSON: It is the hardest thing to do in public education. But the financial realities of where we are today, trying to maintain ten schools that really would be better off at scale with 600 students instead of 310; when you have two schools, you have two principals, you have two assistant principals, you have the support staff. There’s just a reality to the economies of scale, just like any other industry. And making those changes is very difficult for a public system. STEPHEN JANIS: So, why do we keep kind of doubling down on the charter system, if your public system is already sort of facing these structural problems? Why do we keep opening charter schools? Should we keep opening charter schools? BILL FERGUSSON: So, it’s an interesting question. And I think a lot of the charter debate has gotten wrapped up in the sort of political narrative of right and left. STEPHEN JANIS: Sure. BILL FERGUSSON: If you look at Baltimore City, and where student population has been increasing, the charter sector has actually bolstered the city schools’ enrolment by about 9% over the… STEPHEN JANIS: Interesting. BILL FERGUSSON: Now, of course, this is all projections, because it’s hard to say for sure that just because somebody went to a charter school that they wouldn’t have gone to a public school if the public charter had not existed. But based on prior data, there is evidence that the charter schools have increased the enrolment in city schools, particularly around socio-economic inclusion. There are lots of different arguments here that could be wrapped in. But if we did not have the charter sector at all, and we had relied… take the charter schools out since 2000, the trend line would be, we would be closer to 68 to 69,000 students. We are at 76,000 students, as we count them. We also have pre-K students. STEPHEN JANIS: Right. BILL FERGUSSON: So, on one hand, the charter sector in Baltimore City has increased our enrolment, which helps all schools overall, because it brings in more money. Now, there is a debate about how that money gets syphoned out– STEPHEN JANIS: Right. BILL FERGUSSON: …to charters and what we do with special education. The system has benefited from having an increase in enrolment in the charter system. So, I don’t think there is an all-good or all-bad position here. STEPHEN JANIS: Right. BILL FERGUSSON: There are some good components. There are some bad components. The issue that I have with how charters have played out in the city over the last 17 years is that the whole idea of the charter… it was a Democratic initiative to create public charter schools. They were supposed to be these labs of innovation for the public education system. STEPHEN JANIS: Uh huh. BILL FERGUSSON: And we were supposed to try different ideas, and then use those ideas to inform the system overall. We never set up the infrastructure to create that feedback loop, to take the lessons that were learned and apply them at scale. And then also not do the things that didn’t work. And so, what’s been created instead has been this us-versus – them, the charger sector versus the public school sector. And in my mind, you know, fundamentally, we need to have a portfolio of schools that work for families. STEPHEN JANIS: Some people who are opposed to charter schools say they’re really just end up cannibalizing public education. What do you say to people who have those concerns that charter schools are just going to literally signal the end of the public school that has to take all people? BILL FERGUSSON: So, I think the narrative around public charter schools has been largely informed by the national debate. And Maryland’s charter law is so radically different than– STEPHEN JANIS: –How is it different? BILL FERGUSSON: So, charters are a part of the school system, whereas, in D.C. or California, they are a wholly separate independent system. So, when the money comes in for charter schools, it only goes to the charter schools. In Maryland, the way that we’ve set it up with a local board being an authorizer: charter school students count the same as a public school student. All of the money comes to Baltimore City public schools and then is re-distributed. And so, that is a fundamental difference than the vast majority of states that have a different charter law. The other piece is that right now in Maryland, charter schools’ employees, educators, are all part of the system’s human resources system. So, they’re under the same contract, and they’re not a separate independent entity operating. They operate within the broader public school system. There are charter advocates that say that doesn’t work. I tend to believe there’s a lot of good in the way that we’ve set it up. There are places where I wish we had more flexibility. But overall I think Maryland has done it in a much more effective way than some other places that have let for profit, on-line institutions be charter schools. I think that that sort of total free market approach is just a failed and broken way to approach public education. STEPHEN JANIS: You know there are some people who blame the recent teacher’s contract and said, you know, it’s just too generous. What’s your take on that? I mean, has it taken too much money out of the system? Some people say well, it’s been long overdue. What’s your take? BILL FERGUSSON: So, in my mind, the frame of looking at it exclusively in dollars and cents, is the wrong frame by which to evaluate whether or not it’s working. What I’ve asked for from the system, for several years and to really hone in on now, as it’s all being evaluated, is — have we kept our highest effective teachers in the classroom, and created real career pathways for them to build their profession and impact kids across the city? What we saw before this contract is that great teachers moved to become the assistant principals, and then principals, and we took them out of the classroom. There is nothing more important than the quality of the teacher in front of children every day. And the whole idea of the contract was how do we reward those great teachers? Give them a real career pathway where they can grow themselves, grow their community; take ownership of their own career. And I think it has worked in a number of places. Over the last, more recent years, some of the implementation and the vigor that was intended when it was first contemplated — it’s been less than rigorous in creating that career pathway. And I think there was some movement faster than was anticipated. We should fix that. We shouldn’t say that the contract is too generous. We need to have the most effective teachers in front of kids. That is the best reform that we could ever have and we need to reward teachers accordingly. STEPHEN JANIS: Uh huh. Now, some teachers have said that, you know, there are teachers who come into the Baltimore City school system, get their Masters’ degree and go to another jurisdiction and kind of leave the city after two years. Does that concern you at all? Have you heard any concerns of that, I mean, that they’re kind of using the city system to get their training and then moving on elsewhere? BILL FERGUSSON: Yes, I think that was a concern. And one of the major things that the contract did was de-couple that process. It used to be if you had X years of service, you had 30 credits or more, you had a Master’s degree, or you had a Doctorate degree. And those were the different lanes by which teachers were paid. How much they built their practice, how much they were leading within the school. None of that mattered for their compensation. The contract that we have in front of us you can be rewarded for advanced education but it is not the only means by which you can create a career. And so, I think one of the huge benefits of this contract has been we’ve seen a reduction in the churn. You can move up the career ladder faster, get to a stable place and then make teaching a very real, rewarding career that is financially remunerated as such. STEPHEN JANIS: You know, some people… now, is it true for someone that Maryland, that Baltimore City does get the most amount of aid from the State per student? Is that true? BILL FERGUSSON: It’s absolutely true and it’s for a very good reason. STEPHEN JANIS: Yeah, and this they’ll claim… some people will say well, look why do we get the most aid, and our schools are in this miserable condition? Can you first talk about why we get the most and why it doesn’t seem to really take care of the problems that we have? BILL FERGUSSON: Sure. So, before we get to Baltimore City, I think it’s better to frame the overall question. STEPHEN JANIS: Sure. BILL FERGUSSON: People say that we spend too much for Baltimore City education. We have an average of, you know, let’s call it, I think it’s somewhere in the neighborhood of $16,000 is the– STEPHEN JANIS: Per student? BILL FERGUSSON: Per student. STEPHEN JANIS: Okay. BILL FERGUSSON: If you just take all of the money added up together divide it by the number of students, it’s somewhere in the neighborhood of $16,000. If I were to send my son to Gillman, or to St. Paul’s, or one of the private schools, yearly tuition is $28 to $30,000 a year. STEPHEN JANIS: That’s true. BILL FERGUSSON: So, if at Gillman and St. Paul, where the majority of families are coming from some of the most privileged backgrounds, be it as it may, they believe that it costs $28,000 to educate their child in high school. And yet, we say that for my son, who does attend a Baltimore City public school that $16,000 is too much — it makes no sense to me. STEPHEN JANIS: Yeah. BILL FERGUSSON: And so, I think the frame of it is broken. We have to be spending money in Maryland to ensure that all of our kids — and Baltimore City students — absolutely are included, can compete globally. At St. Paul’s and at Gillman they believe the same thing and they say that it costs $28,000 per student. STEPHEN JANIS: Uh huh. BILL FERGUSSON: We’re trying to get away with it at $16,000 per student. You know, these are choices. STEPHEN JANIS: Right, and so, let me have you weigh-in then. Because some people say and it’s been argued and it’s true, Baltimore City spends way more on police, significantly more on police. Jacquie Unger said, you know what? I’m going to put more money… I’m going to take money out of overtime. And I know you live in a district where a lot of people like having more police… BILL FERGUSSON: It depends on which part of the district. STEPHEN JANIS: Right, I just– BILL FERGUSSON: Yeah, very– STEPHEN JANIS: So, in this particular case, you know, how do you fall down on that argument? Because it is true that we spend more than any other jurisdiction on policing — 33% of our budget versus 14% on schools. Do you want to see that changed? BILL FERGUSSON: I think it’s a very easy narrative “police versus schools”… STEPHEN JANIS: But it’s a true narrative. BILL FERGUSSON: It is a true narrative, we set up– STEPHEN JANIS: I mean, it’s not just a narrative, it’s– BILL FERGUSSON: On, no, agreed. But when we set up the formula that we have today and how schools are governed in Baltimore City, it was intended that the costs and authority of the school system would shift to the State. And so, the State would become the larger contributor to the school system. That was a policy choice made with the new funding formula. So, the responsibility for the school system, as it moved away from the City, I think it was natural that they would spend increased revenues on areas that were within their locus of control. From my perspective, I look at the police funding issue at just the police funding issue. And say, you know we have increased by somewhere — 35% over the last 15 years in the police budget. And have the results yielded what we expected? And from my perspective, they haven’t. And so, more money at that problem has not solved the issue. It’s time to look at other strategies that can potentially free up the budget. But that should be directed at actually getting at real criminal justice — safety and security, where people feel secure in their communities — that is a problem in and of itself. STEPHEN JANIS: Yeah. BILL FERGUSSON: It is placed against a resource-constrained environment — the school system’s budget. It is tempting to try and find these easy comparisons and these easy choices. The work is complex. If it were easy, we would have figured it out. STEPHEN JANIS: When you read an indictment where an officer says, it’s really easy to just take overtime and not work it; doesn’t that raise concerns for you? BILL FERGUSSON: Absolutely! And those are the types of reforms, I mean, the overtime budget to me is it’s unconscionable what we’ve seen, the growth in it. I have grave concerns about the oversight of what was happening. I mean, how could it possibly be the way that it is today? And there is no question that we should have a laser focus on drilling into what has and has not worked in the Baltimore Police Department. And make very serious reforms. And I think we’re at a place where we’re engaged in that. It’s going to take time, because it’s hard to shift any agency. And that needs to happen, if it comes with cost savings, excellent. If we can deploy that money in better ways; looking at a more pro-active approach of how do we build people, how do we create sustainable communities, how do we get people real family-sustaining jobs? You know, that should be part of our crime-fighting strategy. STEPHEN JANIS: Yeah. BILL FERGUSSON: But just looking at the overall numbers of, you know, $400 some odd million here, $280 million here — I just think it’s more complex than just how much one spends. And we need to make sure that it’s done in a way that both the police are functioning as effectively and efficiently as possible, and that the school system is functioning. STEPHEN JANIS: Now, there’s been a lot of controversy and the Baltimore Sun had a very interesting piece on Casino money. BILL FERGUSSON: Yeah. STEPHEN JANIS: Feeling that it didn’t really help the school system. You’re involved in that. You’re on a local council that studies the impact of spending. But what’s your take on where this money went? Did it find its way into schools? Or are there changes that need to be made? Did we get ripped off? What’s your take? BILL FERGUSSON: So, fundamentally the Education Trust Fund money that is generated from the casinos, from table games and slot machines, went to fund Maryland’s public education funding formula. There is no doubt about that. And it is a special fund that can only be spent to fund the formula. The question is — did it supplement, or supplant? In many cases, it was supplementing what was an existing liability. STEPHEN JANIS: Uh huh. BILL FERGUSSON: So, it freed up general fund dollars to spend on other things. And I think what gets lost in that– STEPHEN JANIS: –You see that wasn’t… But that’s the thing, it didn’t increase… It didn’t really deliver then. It just kind of said, well, we can move money around to other places. So, in a way, wasn’t it going other places? BILL FERGUSSON: Before we passed the 2012 law, I put in a bill to say that we should use the Education Trust Fund to expand access to pre-Kindergarten services. STEPHEN JANIS: Uh huh. BILL FERGUSSON: And that would have been a supplement to the existing formula. It was on the ballot that people voted on but it didn’t say that it was a mandatory expenditure. It said that it was a permissive expenditure. And so, the Education Trust Fund has not gone towards that line item. This all said, the years 2008, ’09, ’10, ’11, ’12 — coming out of the Great Recession — having the Education Trust Fund allowed us to fund the formula for education at levels that we absolutely… having been here for seven years, would likely would not have funded over those years. If we had not had the Education Trust Fund during those years, we would have seen much more significant cuts to public education. So, it did free up money that went to things like access to healthcare, and cleaning up the environment. STEPHEN JANIS: Uh huh. BILL FERGUSSON: And so, you know, for me public education is the top priority. It’s the reason I’m down here. STEPHEN JANIS: Uh huh. BILL FERGUSSON: But I do recognize that there are competing priorities across the State that we have a responsibility to address. STEPHEN JANIS: Do you think Governor Hogan is going to… is there going to be any increase in funding? Or is the State going to contribute… I know they announced a deal, is that going to happen? Or what form is it going to take do you think? BILL FERGUSSON: You know I think we are waiting to hear from the Governor. We’ve done a lot of heavy lifting in the budget committees to identify cuts and deal with the consequences of those cuts to programs that other people cherish. And we have set out a very realistic plan for the Governor to put in a supplemental budget, and allocate it towards Baltimore City. We’ve had productive conversations but to date, we haven’t seen the action, so. STEPHEN JANIS: You don’t know yet? BILL FERGUSSON: We are waiting. STEPHEN JANIS: Yeah, and hoping. BILL FERGUSSON: Yeah. STEPHEN JANIS: This is Stephen Janis and Taya Graham, reporting for The Real News Network in Annapolis, Maryland. ————————- END