The first classroom I ever taught in was Room 18 of Mars Estates Elementary School in Essex. It’s where I learned that my students — nearly all of whom came from low-income families — had much greater potential than their standardized test scores would suggest. It’s where I started a summer camp for my struggling students, so they could learn social skills and broaden their experiences. It’s where I fell in love with teaching.
And it’s where I learned what an underfunded school looks like. Too few social workers and counselors. Class sizes too large. Teacher shortages and turnover.
That was before the Maryland General Assembly passed the Thornton Funding Plan, making a new investment in our public schools from 2003 to 2008. The new funding resulted in higher teacher salaries, more teachers and support staff and public pre-kindergarten for low-income 4-year-olds. According to the Urban Institute, Maryland’s ranking on the National Assessment for Education Progress jumped from No. 24 to No. 8 in fourth-grade reading and No. 28 to No. 6 in fourth-grade math, even when controlling for special education status, poverty and other student demographic factors.
Educators were beginning to feel empowered to make more progress with their students than ever before. But the recession changed everything. The legislature froze the school funding formula and counties provided the minimum allowed under law and in some cases even less. Public schools haven’t seen adequate funding in the decade since.
Combined with higher learning standards and dramatic increases in low-income students and English language learners, the lack of maintenance of the Thornton Funding Plan has left our schools severely underfunded once again. According to a Maryland State Department of Education study, our public schools are underfunded by $2.9 billion every year. That’s roughly $2 million per school.
Of course, this is no secret. Marylanders know it. It’s why 89 percent of the state just voted for Question 1, a “lockbox” of gaming funds to be spent on education, resulting in a $500 million annual increase in education funding. But educators agree with many who argue that schools don’t just need more funding, they need that additional funding to be directed at the strategies we know work best for kids.
That’s why we hope the General Assembly will pass a new funding plan that invests in the following important elements of a world-class and equitable public education system:
Competitive salaries that attract and retain the best educators in the nation
Labor markets apply to teachers just like any profession. But a recent Economic Policy Institute report found that Maryland teachers make just 86 percent of what the typical college graduate takes in, making it difficult to attract people into the profession. Maryland now has a teacher shortage in the elementary grades for the first time in recent memory. A new funding plan must include a significant increase in teacher salaries and guarantee a living wage for the 25,000 education support professionals who right now take on multiple jobs just to make ends meet.
Instructional and social services staffing to meet every student where they are
Kids aren’t widgets or spreadsheet numbers. They come from unique households and communities and bring their own life experiences. Some have faced traumatic childhood events. More and more live in poverty or speak English as a second language. Any successful modern school system needs enough staff to individualize instruction and social support for every student. That means we need to hire tens of thousands of additional teachers (especially special education teachers), school counselors, psychologists, service coordinators, social workers and paraprofessionals in our schools, starting with our highest poverty schools.
Greater access to readiness pathways from early childhood to career
We are all aware of the race- and income-based gaps in educational opportunity. That starts even before kindergarten and only grows wider when students are preparing for their future after high school. That’s why we must finally provide universal pre-kindergarten for all 4-year-olds, a proven policy that narrows achievement gaps and pays for itself in K-12 education savings. We should also offer career and technical education in high schools for any student who chooses that path, so we can fill skills gaps in our economy and create a pathway to success for students who may choose not to attend college.
There are classrooms like my Room 18 all across Maryland with students who have waited long enough. Every year we delay a new funding formula is another grade they move up without an improved education system. There’s no doubt the price tag for these strategies is sizeable, but we have to remember that every other aspect of society — public safety, healthcare, economic development and even our tax base itself — relies on a well-educated public. Maryland’s future is at stake and educators will never stop advocating for our students, from the classroom to the State House, until that future lives up to their full potential.