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Speaker vows to avoid Md. higher education cuts

House Speaker Adrienne Jones smiles after being elected the first woman and first black lawmaker to win the office during a special session on Wednesday, May 1, 2019 in Annapolis, Maryland. (AP Photo/Brian Witte)

House Speaker Adrienne Jones smiles after being elected the first woman and first black lawmaker to win the office during a special session on Wednesday, May 1, 2019 in Annapolis. Jones told members of the University System of Maryland Thursday that the system will not receive significant funding cuts. (AP Photo/Brian Witte)

HANOVER — Maryland House Speaker Adrienne Jones pledged to the leaders of the state’s public universities Thursday that they would not face significant funding cuts from the General Assembly.

“I do not plan to make draconian cuts to higher education,” Jones told the University System of Maryland Board of Regents at the board’s annual retreat.

The Democrat’s assurance comes as different organizations that rely on state funding wonder what their future looks like as the state figures out how to pay for a $4 billion education reform plan for public schools.

State government is expected to pick up about $2.8 billion of recommendations made by Blueprint for Maryland’s Future Funding Formula Work Group, also called the Kirwan Commission for its chair, William “Britt” Kirwan, a former chancellor of the university system.

That price tag has left concerns that funding K-12 education could come at a cost to other funding priorities.

State Sen. William “Bill” Ferguson, a Baltimore Democrat who chairs the subcommittee responsible for the system’s budget, said higher education was and would remain one of the legislature’s core priorities. 

“There are core functions that the state of Maryland has to do right,” Ferguson said. “Public safety, public education, public health and the environment are the staples for the public sector. I believe in the state of Maryland no matter who the governor is, no matter who is in the legislature, there is a common understanding and shared values around those priorities that will continue to be protected.”

But he also warned that cuts could be coming in other areas, including cuts to some areas where the legislature has mandated spending and cuts to tax credit programs.

Funding for the state’s public universities is an important difference between Maryland and other states.

Most other states in the country have made deep cuts to higher education, leading to tuition increases, layoffs and consolidations.

In Maryland, consistent funding of higher education at high levels has meant low or no tuition increases for state residents over the last decade.

Ferguson, who is also a member of the Kirwan Commission, drew a connection between the commission’s recommendations and the state’s universities. Only 40% of high school graduates are considered college or career ready, he said.

“One of the reasons that we believe that Kirwan is so important is because … the higher ed institutions are dealing so much with the remediation issue,” he said. “That means that we are not doing enough at the K-12 level to get students through successfully for their post-secondary career.”

Ferguson and Jones also pointed to some other higher education issues legislators could expect in the next legislative session, which begins in January. They include more focus on Title IX and economic development.

Jones also said she and Senate President Thomas V. “Mike” Miller had agreed to create a work group to study University of Baltimore president Kurt Schmoke’s idea to increase collaboration between the University of Baltimore, Coppin State University and Baltimore City Community College by bringing them under the overarching banner of the City University of Baltimore.

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