For the past several years, Maryland schools have been anticipating a tsunami of new state and local money to wash over them, allowing them to add prekindergarten, raise teacher salaries and create support for high-poverty schools.

The reality is now here, and instead of euphoria, there’s shock, even from some educators who are deep in the weeds of the landmark education reform legislation.

Local school budgets are in turmoil, class sizes are rising or lowering, and superintendents are under pressure to figure it out fast. The general reaction: Wait, this is what the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future means?

The Blueprint requirements that have been most contentious this year force school systems to redirect money to specific schools with high-needs students — for instance, those with disabilities or who live in poverty. School systems were used to getting state money and generally spreading it out equally among the schools.

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The re-prioritizing has been painful. Cecil County school Superintendent Jeffrey Lawson examined what that would mean for two schools in his county if he had to carry out the Blueprint requirements next school year. One is Bay View Elementary, where 66% of students are considered poor and 22% have special needs. The school would have seen a $1.3 million increase in its budget, but the second school, Rising Sun Middle School, which has significantly fewer students with special needs and poor students, would see its budget fall by $1.1 million.

In stark terms, that would mean adding 14 teachers to Bay View and taking 12 teachers from Rising Sun. Lawson said Bay View would likely have two teachers in a number of classrooms, since there aren’t 14 additional classrooms in the school. The student-to-teacher ratio at Bay View would fall to concentrate attention on students who need it the most. At Rising Sun, student class sizes might rise to 35 to 40 students per teacher, he said.

Lawson has no issue with the Blueprint’s intentions. “If you want to have a real effect or serious impact on needy kids, that is how you do it. I am there with that. What I never [thought it] meant was that this would come at the expense of other kids,” he said.

That dramatic, sudden shift of resources is concerning school superintendents who wrote to the state education leaders earlier this month requesting some delays.

“We strongly support the Blueprint’s ideology that our neediest schools and students receive the highest and most appropriate resources,” the letter said. “Equitable distribution of personnel and support to ‘reimagine the delivery of public education’ will require staff adjustments. For some schools and communities these changes may feel dramatic and scary.”

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The association representing Maryland’s 24 school system superintendents signed the letter.

Money follows the student

The Blueprint was written after years of work by a commission that studied what happened in the best schools in the world. They modeled their recommendations on those practices with the goal of making the state’s public schools some of the best in the nation.

But the legislature wasn’t going to add nearly $3.8 billion a year to education funding over a decade without ensuring that the state could account for the money. So if school systems do not adhere to spending guidelines of the Blueprint, the state can cut future spending for education to the county in question.

How education funding is distributed under the Blueprint is based on a new model that begins with a minimum amount — about $8,600 — for each student in Maryland. For students who live in poverty, are in special education or are new to the country and are learning English, there is additional money. For instance, funding for a student from a family who lives in poverty will be $16,000, nearly double what it is for a student who is above the poverty line. And for the first time, 75% of that additional money can’t go to fund all kids in the system, but must follow the student to their school.

That means that a school in a wealthy area will have far less money to spend to educate each of its students than a school in a blue-collar or poor area.

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Cheryl Bost, the president of the Maryland State Education Association, said it doesn’t have to mean involuntarily transferring large numbers of teachers around a district. If school systems think creatively, she said, they can entice veteran teachers — who command the highest salaries — to schools with the neediest kids. They could pay teachers significant bonuses or add extra social workers, guidance counselors or other staff to support a child’s learning.

“The Blueprint has to get the superintendents out of the mindset that we are treating all the schools the same; we aren’t anymore,” she said.

The Accountability and Implementation Board, which oversees the shift to the Blueprint, has agreed not to take away funding this year or the next if changes are not made immediately, but they want to see signs that school systems are attempting to make changes.

So the dramatic change in resources in Bay View Elementary and schools throughout the state won’t all happen next school year, but will eventually.

Tough decisions in local school systems

Isiah “Ike” Leggett, a former Montgomery County executive and chair of the Accountability and Implementation Board, said the Blueprint is forcing change in the ways that it was intended to. “The Blueprint was never meant to simply add only money from the state and continue to do what schools have been doing all along,” he said.

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And Carey Wright, the interim state school superintendent, said she fully backs the Blueprint objectives. “You want to put your best teachers and your resources where children are struggling because the whole idea is to improve outcomes for children across the state.”

Lawson, of Cecil County, questions whether the minimum amount of money per student — the $8,600 — is enough for schools that don’t have a lot of students with special needs, who live in poverty or who are English learners.

Leggett said he is sympathetic to some of the questions raised by the superintendents. “What we have done is try to give them more time to phase this in a little bit slower, to respond to what I see as a reasonable concern,” he said.

If parents and local leaders believe that schools aren’t getting enough money, he said, then that can play out over the course of the next several years with county governments stepping up to provide more money for schools that don’t get the targeted money.

That scenario is happening now in Cecil County, where a senior at Rising Sun High School, Allison Stoudt, decided to lead a revolt against the proposed school budget for next year that wipes out middle school and Junior Varsity athletic programs, along with marching band, and limits fine arts.

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County Executive Danielle M. Hornberger isn’t expected to give the county schools more than the minimum allowed under Maryland law. Hornberger is running for reelection in the May primary. The school system will give its proposed budget to Hornberger on March 1.

“According to Blueprint funding requirements, Cecil County Public Schools will, at a minimum, receive over $5 million more than last year,” Hornberger said in a statement. “Coupled with his $20 million slush fund, the superintendent has plenty of money and should get back to the difficult work of responsible budgeting and submit to the county a budget that is accountable to the taxpayers.”

More than a thousand people rallied for more money for schools in Elkton, the county seat, earlier this month.

“If the county executive gives us the legal minimum, then the class sizes will go up. As students, we are alarmed,” Stoudt said, adding that she knows people who are switching their party affiliation from Democrat to Republican to try to defeat Hornberger. “I think our voices are really strong, especially because this movement is student-led.”

In large school systems in central Maryland, tight budgets have been common as a number of factors play out beyond the re-prioritizing that the Blueprint demands. This year, federal money that was designed to help school systems recover from the pandemic runs out. And several school systems — including Baltimore County and Baltimore City — have just committed to giving teachers significant pay increases as they move toward the Blueprint’s mandatory $60,000 minimum starting pay for teachers.

In Baltimore County, Superintendent Myriam Rogers is proposing to put more money into elementary schools to reduce class sizes while increasing class sizes in middle and high schools. Rogers said that the new Blueprint is driving many of the county’s budget decisions.

In Howard County, school leaders are proposing the elimination of positions as they attempt to close a $103-million spending gap.

Local school systems are funded with state and local revenues. The amount of money a system receives is based on a variety of factors, including the wealth of the county. So Baltimore City, with its high taxes and lower wealth, receives about $1 billion from the state and $390 million from the city. Baltimore County must contribute a much larger percentage of county revenues to its school budget — about $1.2 billion for next school year or 48% of its total budget, compared to $1 billion or 38% from the state.

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