By Dave DeFusco
U.S. Senator Chris Van Hollen expressed his support for greater state spending on education at a forum hosted by the Johns Hopkins School of Education in the Great Hall on December 13.
The forum, sponsored by the nonprofit Strong Schools Maryland and moderated by Bill Ferguson, a state senator and director of reform initiatives at the School of Education, called attention to the Bridge to Excellence in Public Schools Act of 2002.
As a result of the legislation, Maryland became the first state in the country to endorse a comprehensive reform of its school finance system based on principles of adequacy and equity without being forced to do so by a court order. When the Maryland General Assembly convenes in January, legislators are expected to focus their attention on the reauthorization of the state’s education funding formula.
Van Hollen, who was vice chair of the Budget and Tax Committee as a member of the state senate, said that passage of the bill was the most important work accomplished in his 12 years in the House of Delegates.
“Success in the end was based on providing resources where they were needed most, but in a way that no school district thought they were getting the short end of the stick,” he said. “Everybody did better. That was really important. Earlier legislative versions were seen as underfunding some counties.”
The legislation included substantial increases in state aid for education phased in over a period of six years that were funded in part through a 34-cent increase in the state tax on cigarettes. By fiscal 2008, the legislation called for the state to provide an additional $1.3 billion in education funding to local school systems above the amount that the state would have provided under the prior school finance structure.
The principles of adequacy and equity that were reflected in the senate bill were developed by the Commission on Education Finance, Equity, and Excellence, also known as the Thornton Commission, after Alvin Thornton, chair of the political science department at Howard University.
“Maryland residents need to understand that high standards alone are inadequate to improving education,” said Thornton at the forum. “You need resources. The state recognized not only the need for testing standards, but equity in funding.”
Ferguson said that the Bridge to Excellence Act was not only a watershed in public education, but a necessary support to the state’s democratic institutions. “Public education is a reflection of democracy,” he said. “It’s impossible to unlink them.”
Sia Kyriakakos, the 2016 Maryland Teacher of the Year and a finalist for National Teacher of the Year, said the pillars of an excellent education system are strong parent and community involvement, dedicated teachers, a school administration that welcomes everybody, adequate resources and access to educational opportunities.
“If you invest in preschools now, you’ll have better citizens later,” she said.
Van Hollen said the Maryland legislature needs to reexamine the Bridge to Excellence Act to determine what changes need to be made. He said that since the financial crisis of 2008 there has been an erosion in support for education.
“In many places, students are coming to school with so many needs,” he said. “We need to support them in order to give teachers the ability to focus on education. Community schools could be a model for addressing these needs.”