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Next month, voters will not be choosing between supporting and destroying schools at the ballot box, yet crafty politicians and interest groups are having a field day attempting to convince voters of this alternate reality. In Maryland, the main proponents of a gambling initiative are running misleading ads claiming that the ballot measure, Question 7, “will be a great benefit for children.” Question 7 asks, “Do you favor the expansion of commercial gaming in the State of Maryland for the primary purpose of raising revenue for education...?” Here’s the catch: Even if the purpose is to raise money for schools, it will not necessarily lead to an increase in school spending.
The group behind the ads—For Maryland Jobs and Schools—is a front group for entertainment giant MGM, which hopes to build a casino right outside Washington, D.C. It is doubtful that its main concern is education funding for Maryland students and jobs for Maryland residents.
As always, the deeper you dig, the murkier the issue becomes. Question 7 mandates that the education “trust fund” receives an increase (estimated at roughly $55 million by 2019). However, there is no guaranteed increase in overall school funding. The extra revenue in the trust fund could be used to cover cuts in the general fund dollars that otherwise would have gone to education. As the Baltimore Sun reported, “nothing in the law says that the state is actually required to spend more on education than it would have otherwise.” Thus while the money that could be spent on education will increase, policymakers could also redirect funding that had been going to education elsewhere.
The coupling of gambling expansion in Maryland with education is tenuous at best. In reality, one of the main proponents of the measure, Maryland’s ambitious “forward, not back” governor Martin O’Malley is using the time honored tradition of connecting less-than-desirable policy choices with overwhelmingly supported causes in an attempt to help those measures pass. Likewise, Governor Jerry Brown of California is involving education with a tax increase—Proposition 30 in California (He wants it to be known as The Schools and Local Public Safety Protection Act.). Here, Governor Brown is claiming that if voters do not approve a tax increase on those making over $250,000 he will have to cut education funding by $4.8 billion right smack in the middle of the school year. Triggering the cuts is California state law, in a manner that is almost identical to the fiscal cliff currently facing Congress. This despite, as the Los Angeles Times reports, “K-12 spending per pupil remains $1,000 less than it was five years ago.” The governor’s budget presupposes the proposition passes, thus if it does not the cuts will be a necessity. The governor is implementing policy and then bullying the citizens of California into agreeing with him or risk cuts to school spending.
The real issues here are gambling expansion in Maryland and tax increases in California. These policy measures should rise or fall on their own merits. Don’t drag education into these important but contentious debates. The problem is that this political maneuver works. Almost every time a defense-spending bill comes before Congress, it is full of packages and proposals that are not related to national security, but they become law because our representatives fear being bludgeoned with campaign ads that question their patriotism. Similarly, no one wants the moniker of education cutter.
While all policy is inevitably linked, especially in an era of depressed budgets and revenues, trying to pass unrelated measures by coupling them with education ends up hurting education. Education deserves its own debate and a central place in political discussion. Burdening it with cheap political tricks downgrades education to an unworthy place in our political discourse.