Doomsday for Md. education — and economy

Earlier this month, both houses of the Maryland General Assembly passed the state's fiscal 2013 operating budget, but both houses failed to pass tax legislation and a companion bill required to fund and implement the budget.

As a result, our state faces two possibilities. Ideally, GovernorMartin O'Malleyand the legislative leadership will work out their differences, reconvene in a special session, and pass the legislation necessary for the FY 2013 budget to go into effect as lawmakers intended on July 1, 2012. However, if no action is taken, a drastically different budget will go into effect by default. This alternative budget — aptly labeled the "doomsday budget" — would force severe and sweeping cuts. To make matter worse, the lion's share of these cuts would directly target Maryland's K-12 public schools and Maryland's public colleges and universities.

It is imperative that we fully recognize and understand how much is at risk. For four consecutive years, Education Week has ranked Maryland's public schools as the best in the nation, based on factors such as student performance, teacher effectiveness and preparation for college and the workplace. The University System of Maryland (USM) has received national praise at the highest level in recognition of our efforts to enhance quality, keep tuition affordable, and — most of all — cut costs. In fact, our Effectiveness and Efficiency initiative, which has removed more than $250 million in direct costs from our budget, has been cited by President Barack Obama as a national model.

If the doomsday budget goes into effect, Maryland will not just be putting the brakes on years of progress, we will be actively undoing it. To intentionally inflict this sort of damage on Maryland's educational system, which has propelled us ahead of other states — not just educationally, but economically, socially and in terms of our high quality of life — is unthinkable. Yet it is a very real possibility.

Under the doomsday budget, the USM would be cut nearly $50 million. That would mean reductions in financial aid, closing the door to higher education opportunities for students from families most in need. In addition, we would be forced to reduce enrollment and enact programmatic cuts, limiting our ability to educate a sufficient number of students in areas of key workforce needs such as health care, engineering and cybersecurity. We would also almost certainly have to lay off faculty and staff, resulting in reduced course offerings, larger class sizes and reduced services for students.

Most troubling of all, the doomsday budget would dictate a double-digit increase for in-state, undergraduate tuition, an increase significantly higher than the 3 percent included in the governor's budget proposal.

As noted, over the past several years the USM has cut more than a quarter-billion dollars from its budget. These efforts have also yielded additional savings through cost avoidance. We have honored our obligation to tighten our belt throughout this period of economic difficulty and shared sacrifice. While we are proud of the success we have achieved and are continuing with our efforts, it is simply not possible for the USM to "absorb" a nearly $50 million cut without significant pain.

Finally, the doomsday budget would utterly cripple our efforts to increase college completion rates to the level necessary to bolster Maryland's competitiveness. This would weaken our workforce development efforts, undermine Maryland's economic vitality and threaten the state's leadership in the innovation economy.

We must not go down this path. Maryland has rejected the national trend of disinvestment in higher education. From Pennsylvania to California, university budgets have been slashed, resulting in massive tuition hikes, significant layoffs, devastating cuts to service and erosions in quality. During this period, Maryland has chosen a different — and smarter — direction. Recognizing higher education as the engine of innovation, discovery and knowledge that will propel our economy and quality of life forward, Maryland made funding for the USM a genuine priority. It would be tragic if we allowed a completely self-inflicted wound, one so easily avoidable, to turn the promising and prosperous future that is within our grasp into unfulfilled potential. More than tragic, it would be unforgivable.

William E. Kirwan is chancellor of the University System of Maryland. His email is

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