COMMENTARY: Our Children’s Education is on the Ballot this Year

Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD)
Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD)

Submitted to the AFRO by Elijah E. Cummings

More than half a century ago, my parents and a wonderful teacher named Mr. Hollis Posey followed their hearts and championed my right to learn.  As a result, I received the empowering education in our City’s public schools that would transform my life.

Although I am grateful that I received the “thorough and efficient public education” that is guaranteed to every child by Article VIII of Maryland’s constitution, I am deeply troubled that all of Maryland’s children are not receiving this most basic foundation for successful, productive lives.

A widely acknowledged study in 2016 found that Maryland’s public schools are under-funded by $2.9 billion each year.

In response, the Maryland Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education [typically referred to as the Kirwan Commission] has determined that significantly more funding will be required to give every Maryland child a reasonable chance in life, especially children living in those communities with the deepest concentrations of poor families.

Both our values and our long-term self-interest demand that we speak truth to power about correcting this failure.

Far too many of Maryland’s children are being relegated to a future devoid of competence or hope.  This is an unacceptable failing – and it’s up to us, as voters, to assure that those we elect in November are committed to providing our children’s public schools with the funding that they need and deserve.

Although public education is primarily a state and local (rather than a federal) responsibility, the President and Congress have an important role in funding the public education of economically disadvantaged students (Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act) and students with disabilities (the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act).

Currently, annual federal education funding for Title I and IDEA is significant (just under $16 billion and $12 billion, respectively).  However, these appropriations have not kept up with the rising cost of educating our students, nor with the legitimate needs of states like Maryland for a more robust and realistic federal partnership.

The President and his Republican congressional allies have failed to adequately address this challenge.  Democrats in Congress have had to fight just to avoid significant cuts in federal education funding.

As a result, our nation’s schools are no longer the envy of the world, a reality that threatens our long-term national security.

Maryland’s Democratic delegation to Washington understands that we must significantly expand federal education funding – but only by electing a Democratic majority to the next Congress can we make this commitment a reality.

Despite Governor Hogan’s assertions that Maryland is devoting more support to public education than ever before, the Kirwan Commission has acknowledged that far too many of our school children are being short-changed, especially in jurisdictions like Baltimore City.

On Election Day this year, we will decide whether Republican Larry Hogan or his Democratic challenger, Ben Jealous, will make the education of our children his top priority and fulfill our constitutional duty.

As a Maryland voter, I am a strong supporter of Ben Jealous’ candidacy to become our next Governor.  Maryland’s teachers, through their Education Association’s endorsement, are supporting him as well.

As a Past President of our national NAACP, Ben Jealous is painfully aware (as am I) that the percentage of Maryland public school students living in poverty has more than doubled since 1990 (from 22 percent to 45 percent).  We understand that properly educating all of our students, as well as meeting the rising cost of special education, will require a substantial and sustained infusion of additional state funding.

Drawing upon the Kirwan Commission’s upcoming final report and recommendations, our next Governor and State Legislature will have the duty to revise Maryland’s school funding formula for the first time in nearly two decades.  The Commission is expected to recommend increasing the base, per-pupil state funding from $6,860 to $10,880 for each school child.

These challenges, I believe, are why Mr. Jealous has publicly committed (1) to fully implement the Kirwan Commission’s recommendations during the upcoming 2019 legislative session; (2) to raise our teachers’ salaries by 29 percent; (3) to implement full-day, universal Pre-K; (4) and to more effectively target state education funding to those school districts with the largest concentrations of poverty.

On Election Day, our voters can also approve an amendment to Maryland’s constitution that will guarantee that public education’s share of the state’s casino revenues is fully committed to funding public education (Question 1).  This guarantee will provide an additional $500 million in annual state funding for our schools, an important first step toward closing the current $2.9 billion funding gap.

Both Ben Jealous and Larry Hogan have declared that they support Question 1.   However, Governor Hogan has yet to adequately explain why he diverted $1.4 billion of our State’s casino money from public education (as voters were originally promised it would be invested) to other purposes.

When I visit our children’s classrooms, I look into our students’ eager faces and know that we must act with a sense of urgency to adequately invest in their future.  On Election Day, God willing, Maryland’s voters will commit our State to a better future for us all, one filled with confidence, competence and hope.

Congressman Elijah Cummings represents Maryland’s 7th Congressional District in the United States House of Representatives.

This post originally appeared in the AFRO. The opinions on this page are those of the writers and not necessarily those of the AFRO.

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