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March 10, 2011

Maintenance of Effort promotes maintenance of mediocrity

by Sebastian Medina-Tayac, Editor-in-Chief
The I.D. policy, blue Pepsi, Nickelback: Good intentions do not always produce good results. On the contrary, misguided or irrelevant decisions can harm the very people they were meant to serve.

This is so in the case of the Maintenance of Effort (MOE) requirement, a Maryland state funding law that requires county governments to spend the same amount of money per-student as they did the previous fiscal year in order to receive additional state funding. This year, the county, with its $300 million debt, cannot afford to fund at this inflated requirement ($10,644 per student). As a result, MCPS students will face a projected $22 million decrease in state funding. This could lead to increases in class sizes and reduction of outdoor education and instrumental music programs. This law needs to change to accommodate counties on an individual basis, in order to protect their students from a decrease in quality of education.

Senate Bill 53 (SB 53), currently in committee in the Maryland State Senate, would amend the MOE law to clearly outline new and more flexible criteria upon which the Maryland State Department of Education (MSDE) grants individual county school systems waivers, allowing them to not meet the MOE requirement. It would take into account general economic condition, changing tax base and history of upholding MOE in past years.

The original purpose of the MOE law, formulated in the 1970s, was to make sure that as states were playing a larger role in school funding, counties would not use the additional aid to offset other costs, according to Maryland State Senator Richard Madaleno (Montgomery). Though the reasoning was sound in the context of corrupt, low-income districts forty years ago, it is disproportionately penalizing Montgomery County.

Other school districts who met MOE this year receive more support from the state, such as Baltimore, which receives about 70 percent of its funding from the state directly, as opposed to Montgomery County, which receives about 30 percent from the state. Though these levels are calculated on state formulas that account for available tax contributions, it is harder for our local government to cover the majority of the inflated costs it created in a better economic climate. Even when MOE requirements are waived, the county maintains more responsibility for its school system than other counties.

We now have one of the highest MOE minimums in the state, at about $10,664, because of our history of increasing per-student spending in the past. The current MOE law does not account for this achievement. According to Patrick Lacefield, Montgomery County executive spokesperson, "We have consistently contributed far above Maintenance of Effort."

The issue here, according to the Student Member of the Board of Education, Alan Xie, is that MOE minimums can only go up. These past couple years, in one of the worst economic recessions since the Great Depression, the County Council, already $300 million in debt and facing a huge 2,200-student increase in enrollment (each of whom is supposed to cost $10,664 for the county), has understandably not had the money to continue its previous high funding levels.

According to Lacefield, the county cannot make back $300 million without tapping into the 57 percent of their budget that accounts for the school system. "There have already been cuts across the board; no [county] department was left untouched."

If SB 53 is not passed this year, MCPS will directly face a steep penalty. Though meeting MOE is out of their control, according to Christopher Barclay, president of the BOE, the board expects a decrease of $22 million in state funding. Disturbingly reminiscent of the failure that was "No Child Left Behind," the current MOE law takes money from a system for not having enough money.

If and when MCPS cannot make $82 million more than the $15 million saved (with difficulty) last year without the County’s help, it will be forced to turn to one of the least popular pieces of paper in Weast’s office: the "non-recommended cuts." These proposed cuts threaten about 650 jobs and would result in largely increased class sizes, more staff and faculty cuts, and the reduction or elimination of popular programs such as outdoor education and instrumental music, said Xie.

This is not a situation that a law, intended to increase the quality of education, should create.

These stakes are too high; the county cannot risk losing these programs that are vital to providing MCPS students with a unique and high-quality educational experience. The fact that one of the wealthiest counties in the state, offering award-winning educations to students, cannot meet this requirement should be a message to Annapolis to amend the inherently flawed requirement to account for a changing economy. Students cannot afford to suffer at the hand of a law that is outdated and ineffective.



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