Whatever students are learning these days in Common Core math, the most important factor in their education may be a numbers game played out on the state and county levels.
And virtually no one agrees on how the figures should come out.
Del. Herb McMillan, R-Annapolis, said while mechanisms are needed to shunt additional funds to counties with less income, it’s unfair to base every state formula on wealth.
In Anne Arundel County, McMillan said, “we’re not getting the bang for our buck. We have kids who have needs here as well.”
Anne Arundel County Public Schools spent $13,464 on each student in fiscal 2014, according to the Department of Legislative Services.
The majority of it, about 58 percent, came from the county. Another 38 percent came from state funding, and about 4 percent from federal funding.
By comparison, Baltimore provides only 19 percent of its own school funding, while getting 73 percent from the state. The rest comes from the federal government.
The difference in state funding amounts to $7,100 per pupil. Critics of the system don’t believe this is fair.
State funding starts with a calculation of how much is needed for each pupil. There are adjustments for the costs involved with at-risk students, such as special education students, students eligible for free and reduced-price lunches and students who have difficulty speaking English.
There are other provisions for the cost of education in certain geographic areas, as well as targeted state grants.
The final piece of the calculation: How much the local jurisdiction contributes.
This is figured according to a concept called “inverse wealth” – the wealthier the jurisdiction, the less received from the state.
If all 23 counties and Baltimore contributed the same proportions of tax revenue to public education, state officials say, there would still be wide discrepancies in spending per pupil. But all jurisdictions don’t contribute at the same rate, in part due to the rates at which they set their taxes.
Anne Arundel’s personal property tax rate is $0.95 per $100 of assessed value. The rate in Howard County is $1.01; in Baltimore, it’s $2.25.
Revenue depends not only on the rate but on home values, which are typically higher in Anne Arundel, Howard and Montgomery counties than in Prince George’s County and Baltimore.
McMillan said the formulas for per-pupil numbers should be revisited, or at least made more transparent.
As calculated by the Department of Legislative Services, Anne Arundel receives 24 cents back in state services for every dollar of state taxes paid in the county.
Less wealthy jurisdictions can get more back from the state than they contribute. Somerset County, for instance, receive as much as $1.36 for every dollar of taxes.
“Basically, we’ve got a money transfer from Anne Arundel County to every county in the state,” McMillan said. “It’s being done at our expense and at our children’s expense.”
Also, what money comes in from the state is mostly in the form of restricted funds and grants, said Alex Szachnowicz, the school system’s chief operating officer.
When it comes to putting their own money into the schools, jurisdictions are legally required to abide by what’s called maintenance of effort – meaning that they can’t cut per-pupil spending from year to year.
The county normally funds just above maintenance of effort. In fiscal 2014, it did so by $40. In fiscal 2015, it will be $4.
Nine counties substantially exceeded maintenance of effort in fiscal 2014. One was Howard, which funded $8.8 million more than required by the state.
Howard County Executive Ken Ulman said in a statement that his county’s budget reflects the community’s priorities.
Anne Arundel’s low taxes are one of the reasons it draws outsiders, Szachnowicz said.
House Speaker Michael E. Busch, D-Annapolis, said counties get their fair share of services – if local governments make an appropriate investment.
“Howard County invests more, Montgomery County invests more. If you want to compete, you’re going to have to invest more,” Busch said.
Each school system is ultimately held to the same standard as each county, Szachnowicz said.
“We’re the 14th lowest-funded school system, but we’re not the 14th-worst school district in the state,” he said.
Anne Arundel is often ranked as between the third- and fifth-best school system in the state, depending on which test scores are used.
“The question left hanging: Is fifth good enough?” Szachnowicz said.