Md.’s Hogan on education in State of the State

Gov Larry Hogan (R-Md.)

Gov Larry Hogan of Maryland delivered his first State of the State address in Annapolis today a little after noon. The large part of the speech focused on initiatives he hopes will make Maryland friendlier to businesses and families, including tax cuts for small businesses and an attempt to repeal the so-called “rain tax.”

He occasionally praised Maryland’s schools throughout the speech, noting that although the state’s public schools are good, the gap between the highest- and lowest-performing schools is still wide. He didn’t mention any prekindergarten initiatives at all.

Proposed charter school reforms

He hopes the achievement gap will narrow if Maryland’s families have more of a choice when it comes to educating their children, and one way he hopes to accomplish this is by revising the state’s charter school laws. He hopes that changes will make it easier for charter companies to open charters in the state.

Here’s what he said about charters:

Number 8, Improving education for all Maryland children … Education is our top priority. In our proposed budget, we spend more money on education than ever before. We fund K-12 education at record levels and have committed over $290 million to school construction.

… I believe that every child in Maryland deserves a world-class education, regardless of what neighborhood they grow up in. We must fix our under-performing schools while also giving parents and children realistic and better alternatives. So, let’s expand families’ choices. Let’s encourage more public charter schools to open and operate in Maryland.

This month, our administration will submit legislation to strengthen Maryland’s charter school law. This legislation will expand choices for families and make it easier for more public charter schools to operate in Maryland.

Turning private school donations into a tax credit

Continuing with the idea of encouraging parental choice, Mr Hogan also made a passing reference to legislation he would like to be able to sign, legislation that would provide tax credits for parents who decide to send their children to private or parochial schools:

Our administration will also push for the enactment of the “Building Opportunities for All Students and Teachers” legislation, also known as “BOAST.” It provides tax credits to those who make voluntary contributions to private or parochial schools, and it will help free up more money and resources for our students in public schools.

This legislation has been debated in these chambers for more than a decade. The Senate has already voted to support it. We need to work to convince our colleagues in the House that it is the right thing to do.

Things to keep in mind

The governor’s speech set forth those changes he would like to see in Maryland law. Any legislation he proposes would still have to pass a Democratic-controlled General Assembly, and that could be a tall order, despite a professed willingness on Mr Hogan’s part to reach across the aisle to Democrats.

Charter schools receive money from our taxes but are run by private corporations. When Mr Hogan talks about “strengthening” the charter school laws, it would be good to make the organizations that run the schools more transparent so that at least the public would know how its tax dollars are being spent. Somehow, I don’t think that’s what the new governor has in mind, since that change wouldn’t be business-friendly.

Charter schools may have an important role to play when it comes to working with some students who aren’t well served by public schools. Public schools have to accept any students who live within the boundaries of the given school. Charters can restrict enrollment, if that provision is part of the charter they write, and then give more individualized attention to students who require more attention than public schools can provide.

But in practice, that’s not how the majority of charters operate. Many run marketing campaigns to attract the greatest number of students possible in order to maximize the funding flowing from public coffers to the charter school operators. Many students who are attracted by these marketing campaigns would be served very well by public schools, but their decision to attend the charter drains money out of the public schools and results not only in no gains for the individual student but also in a reduction in funding for the students who weren’t sucked in by glossy marketing campaigns and remained in the public schools.

Furthermore, although charters are often accountable in multiple ways to public school authorities in the state, the public usually has no right to inspect the finances of private corporations. Lots of money flows into well-populated charters, and several large charter corporations have become corrupt, spending the majority of the money not to improve education for students at the charter but rather to advance the private interests of the charter operators. We reported (here, here) on one charter chain that may be sending money to Turkey to finance a government takeover.

As for providing public funds, in the form of tax credits, to private schools, I disagree with the governor’s plans on governance grounds. Although the government isn’t sending money directly to religious schools, that would be the net effect of the BOAST legislation.

By giving businesses tax credits if they donate money to private schools, presumably to offset tuition for students at those schools, we’re not directly taking money away from public schools, as we would be with charters, but we’re simply making it more affordable for students to attend private schools.

When a certain proportion of students takes advantage of that, leaving a public school for private schools, attendance drops at the public school and as a result, so does the money the school receives from the state. In some ways, it’s a shell game with our tax dollars; in other ways, it’s giving poorer families a choice they wouldn’t otherwise have. The debate continues.

For the record, the Maryland State Education Association, the union that represents most of the state’s public school teachers, opposes the BOAST legislation for this and other reasons, saying it would “benefit mostly religious schools and [publicly] subsidize all aspects of a religious education.”

That’s also what I believe. Parent choice is good, but the government can’t put that goal above the goals set forth in our Constitution.

About the Author

Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more biographical information, see the About page.