Maryland's regressive 'cost of education' scam

Originally published in the Herald-Mail

Thomas A. Firey Jul 8, 2015

Former Washington County delegate Bruce Poole’s recent appointment as chair of the Maryland Democratic Party should be welcome news for the state’s rural residents. It suggests that Democrats may begin paying more attention to Marylanders outside the tony suburbs of Washington, D.C. and the poor neighborhoods of Baltimore City, which once were all the party needed to dominate the state’s politics. Larry Hogan’s stunning gubernatorial victory last November and Republicans’ growing control of Maryland county governments have raised the uncomfortable prospect that Democrats’ longtime “suburban rich and urban poor” coalition may no longer be indomitable.

And it’s more good news that Poole helped to organize the first-ever Rural Maryland Democratic Summit, held in Frederick last month.[1] The event featured elected leaders vowing the party will compete hard in all areas of the state, political insiders promising to appeal to rural residents and current officeholders describing their outreach to voters beyond the I-95 corridor.

But then Attorney General Brian Frosh took to the podium and blew all those encouraging signs to hell.

Rural Marylanders should be incensed, Frosh told the Summit audience, because Governor Hogan is not fully funding the state’s Geographic Cost of Education Index program (GCEI), cutting it by $68.1 million.[2] Somewhere in the back of the room, Poole’s palm must have slammed into his forehead.

Few people know about the GCEI, but it’s a brilliant piece of regressive, anti-rural legislation. Adopted as part of the 2002 legislative package restructuring how Maryland funds its public schools, the GCEI “provides additional state education aid to certain ‘high cost’ jurisdictions,” to quote the Maryland Association of Boards of Education.[3]

That sounds all well and good until you see what those jurisdictions are. One is Baltimore City, which is appropriate given the city’s high cost of living and low household income. Over the years 2009–2013, the city’s annual median household income was a mere $41,385, yet its density and other factors raise its cost of operating schools.

But most of the GCEI jurisdictions, which would have received most of that $68.1 million, are in those tony D.C. suburbs: Anne Arundel, Calvert, Carroll, Charles, Frederick, Howard, Montgomery, Prince George’s and Queen Anne’s counties. These are literally some of the wealthiest political subdivisions in the world and, one would think, quite capable of paying for their schools themselves.

As for the comparatively poorer rural counties of Allegany, Caroline, Cecil, Dorchester, Garrett, Harford, Somerset, Talbot, Washington, Wicomico and Wooster, the GCEI gives them bupkis.

A careful reading of the 2002 legislation reveals why the rich counties get subsidies: the GCEI formula increases state aid as rich-county residents grow richer.[4] So one can understand why Frosh, a lawyer from the luxe Montgomery County community of Chevy Chase, would be incensed by Hogan’s GCEI cut. Brother, can you spare a Lexus?

And if you’re wondering what Hogan did with the money cut from the GCEI program, he put it toward the woefully underfinanced state workers and teachers pension fund,[5] which Maryland lawmakers had raided repeatedly in recent years.[6]

Of course, the GCEI is a tiny program in just one area of Maryland government. But it is a fitting symbol of the state’s politics, which for decades has functioned to deliver benefits to the upper class at the expense of their poorer neighbors, especially those in rural counties.

From taxpayer-financed golf resorts, stadiums and opera halls, to the hyper-expensive Metrorail system that shuttles commuters between D.C. bedroom communities and the downtown, from laws that help lawyers, gas stations and car dealers to raise their prices and profits, to regulations that give monopoly zones to health care providers, from requirements that cripple small businesses, to government handouts that induce major corporations to ring the Beltway, Annapolis is a playground of regressive redistribution.

As you may remember, one political party has dominated Maryland for more than a century. Its politicians are primarily responsible for the state’s regressive policies. As Frosh showed, those politicians are now incensed at the prospect of losing even the smallest bit of upper-class welfare—even if it would help Maryland keep its promises to retired teachers.

So pity Bruce Poole. He has his work cut out for him.

Thomas A. Firey is a senior fellow with the Maryland Public Policy Institute and a Washington County native.

[1] Pamela Wood. “Democrats Plot Strategies for Making Gains in Rural Counties.” (Baltimore) Sun, June 20, 2015.

[2] Andrew Schotz. “This Year, Democratic Summit Goes Rural.” (Hagerstown, MD) Herald-Mail, June 20, 2015.

[3] Maryland Association of Boards of Education. Statement of Support for House Bill 114. February 5, 2014.

[4] For more, see: Thomas A. Firey, “GCEI: Alms for the Rich,” Maryland Public Policy Institute Policy Blog, January 28, 2015; The (Baltimore) Sun, “Baltimore’s Progress at Risk,” January 28, 2015.

[6] Thomas A. Firey. “State, Local Employees Should Keep Watch Over Retirement Funds.” (Hagerstown, MD) Herald-Mail, November 20, 2013.