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Frank DeFilippo: Return on Investment Projections for Kirwan Seem Unrealistic

If there’s such a thing as reincarnation, every Maryland taxpayer should engage Strong Schools Maryland and the Sage Policy Group to plot the kind of investment return they claim the Kirwan education reform plan promises its debtors, we, the people. We should all be so lucky as the Kirwan jackpot.

The outsider advocates propping up the financial benefits of the education package are, in the grammar of politics, relying on more predicates than appear in Merriam-Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary.

The investment is now. The benefits begin arriving in 2034 and are fully self-cancelling and turn profitable in 2046. Those who pick up the tab will never see a dime.

And here’s the cropper. Just as most level-headed citizens suspected, Pre-K will become a taxpayer-subsidized day-care operation so the baby-sitting service can release those stay-at-home-mothers to jobs that will generate taxes to repay the treasury, thus eventually settling the accumulated debt. Sorry, but that’s what the Sage analysis seems to say.

Those newly liberated working moms will begin to repay the taxpayers’ debt by 2034 and be full participants in the state’s debt-paying economy by 2046 – all to the melodious tune of $382 million. This must be what was once called the new math, or more appropriately, Trumponomics – exaggerate assets and downplay liabilities.

The analysis by Sage also foresees significant savings in government spending through less reliance on the social safety net by a better educated and more self-sufficient products of Maryland’s schools.

Add to that the billions in taxes the newly-educated crop of kids will pay and the money will be fully recovered, and then some.

If only.

Sad to say, the quality of Maryland’s schools and the caliber of its students are not likely to improve any more dramatically over the next 25 years than they have in the past quarter of a century. In fact, they’ve shown some decline over recent years.

It is worth noting that back in the 1950s, Baltimore had what was regarded as the finest public school system in the nation, under the direction of Superintendent Dr. George B. Brain. Private schools were floundering as the city’s top students competed for slots in the highly regarded public schools. Brain’s departure from Baltimore to Washington State in 1960 was significant enough for a story in The New York Times.

Right up front, let us posit that nearly everyone would like new and improved schools stamping out young college-ready graduates and future Rhodes Scholars. And polling shows that most Marylanders are willing to pay higher taxes to achieve that worthy goal.

Except for one, the man who must eventually sign whatever bill General Assembly Democrats concoct, and that would be Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, who, upon occasion, flares his political taproot as an anti-tax populist. But fear of Hogan is uncommon to the education lobby in the State House, where Democratic veto-proof majorities are mightier than the signature pen.


Frank A. DeFilippo

In the case of Kirwan, Hogan uses a different era’s mathematics to rant and rave and scare the bejeebers out of the folks who are aligned with his pinch-penny policies. To prove his bona fides, Hogan likes to reduce tolls and fees to the point of breaking the transportation bank and to cut admission fees for veterans who visit state parks. That, in the Hogan era, passes for tax reform.

And now Hogan, preparing for the Armageddon-ish battle over Kirwan, has presented a school accountability plan of his own, or rather, borrowed. It would allow local residents to assume the management of failing schools, those that receive one-star ratings two years in a row. There are 24 one-star schools in Baltimore. Hogan’s announcement also included $2.2 billion for school construction.

Hogan says his community take-over plan is modeled after a similar law in Massachusetts. More accurately, the proposal is copy-cat legislation advanced by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a conservative advocacy organization funded by the billionaire Koch brothers. Put another way, the plan is a back-door attempt to weaken teachers’ unions and undermine the public school system.

So let’s cut the baloney and the nutsonomics. Kirwan is a huge investment for both state and local governments and it will require, like the dreaded word or not, a massive infusion of new money, which in government usually translates to taxes in one form or another.

It’s the projected return on the investment that’s questionable, if not in doubt, and not the investment itself. Take a look at Baltimore’s education profile:

City residents, that is, those who pay property taxes, can forget about any reduction in those taxes for at least the distant future, if not beyond their lifetimes or mortgage payments. Mayor Bernard “Jack” Young has ordered across-the-board cuts of 5% in city agency budgets to accumulate the city’s share of the Kirwan spending plan, estimated at $330 million a year.

Young has also stated that a rare city budget surplus of $35 million will be directed to school construction.

The city school system has a projected shortfall for this fiscal year of $60 million in its $1.31 billion budget, and is relying on the city or state for a bailout.

Baltimore spends more per pupil – about $20,000 a year – than any other subdivision in the state except Montgomery County, which spends about the same amount. There’s a measurable difference in results.

An empty stomach is a poor teacher. Eighty percent of the 79,297 students in Baltimore’s 172 public schools are eligible for free breakfast and lunch, according to state figures. Low income status is under or unreported but nonetheless recorded at 52.7% of the school population.

Baltimore schools have the highest truancy rate in the state – 37% of its students missed 10% of school last year, which translates to 20,000 of its 80,000 students are chronically absent.

The dropout rate from Baltimore schools is 14% and its graduation rate is 91.9%.

Finally, the state’s new “star” school rating system produced only middling results. Baltimore ranked only one five-star school, Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, or Poly, for short.

A couple of decades ago, the wonderment was a book called, “Why Johnny Can’t Read.” And the cynical shorthand answer was, “because his teacher can’t read.”

Before that, President Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” made a valiant but unsuccessful attempt at remedial action by tossing billions of dollars into states that were designed to end poverty and racial discrimination by dealing with education, medical care, urban problems and transportation – War on Poverty, Economic Opportunity Act, HUD, Head Start, Job Corps, Domestic Peace Corps, Elementary and Secondary Education Act, Higher Education Act, Demonstration Cities and Redevelopment Act, to name a few.

Many of the programs failed or faded, and some were a downright embarrassment over the problems they caused. The Job Corps training center in Baltimore was a glaring example and had to be shut down because of internal problems among its participants.

And here we are again.

In spite of the billions upon billions that have been invested, the social tinkering and the exhortations that knowledge is the key to advancement, there remains one timeless and universal standard: Education begins in the home, by example and surroundings, and that’s something money can’t buy.



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Frank DeFilippo: Return on Investment Projections for Kirwan Seem Unrealistic