Maryland Could Soon Make Radical Changes To Education

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The funding formula for Maryland public schools hasn’t been changed since the Bridge to Excellence in Public Schools Act was passed in 2002, but the Kirwan Commission is poised to change that fact.

Now that lawmakers have convened for the 2020 session of the General Assembly, they must decide how much of the commission’s findings they will fund.

Learn how the changes might affect your kids and your wallet.

Why Was The Commission Formed?

The Maryland General Assembly passed legislation in 2016 to establish the Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education. Chaired by a former president of the University of Maryland, William “Brit” Kirwan, the 25-member commission was tasked with reviewing the current funding formula and with making recommendations that would help students meet the challenges of a changing global economy and fulfill the state’s workforce needs.

From September 2016 to 2019, the members studied school systems across the world to come up with the best practices for improving education in Maryland.

“The Kirwan Commission not only looked at funding,” said Cheryl Bost, president of Maryland State Education Association, “they looked at the whole programmatic parts of education: adding more career technology education opportunities for all students, increasing pre-k opportunities, creating community schools to address students and families that are maybe living in concentrated poverty. So it really takes a holistic look at our education.”

The Recommendations And The Cost

For all the Kirwan initiatives, the total cost is a projected $3.8 billion annually in addition to current spending. That cost would be phased in over 10 years. Maryland got a head start in 2019 when the General Assembly passed the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, which was a down payment on the initiatives.

The Kirwan Commission has recommended the expansion of full-day preschool, to be free for all 3- and 4-year-olds from low-income families.

Under the proposals, teacher preparation would be more rigorous, and teacher pay would be equitable to other professionals with the same amount of education. Using Singapore and Shanghai as models, career ladders for teachers and school leaders would be developed, creating new standards for advancement and compensation.

“When we compare teachers to other professions that require the same amount of education, we make 85 cents on the dollar,” Bost said. “We are definitely underpaid, and we are experiencing teacher shortages even today, and so the need to raise salaries across the board will help us attract the best and brightest.”

A fully aligned instructional system would be developed, including curriculum frameworks, course syllabi and assessments.

Career and technical education would be celebrated. Every middle and high school would be staffed with mentors to counsel and advise students on career and technical options.

Schools serving high populations of students living in poverty would get a boost with before- and after-school and summer academic programs and student access to needed health and social services.

An accountability oversight board would ensure the recommendations are successfully implemented.

What Are The Pros And Cons?

The commission’s findings and next steps have largely been a partisan debate. Democrats want to fund most of the findings while Republicans say the price tag is too high and that there is no way to guarantee results.

“I’ve taken a deep dive in the Kirwan proposals, and I’m shocked at how little they do to modernize education,” said Nic Kipke, House minority leader and Republican from District 31B. “There are very little innovations and no mention of addressing the problem of disruptive students in the classroom.”

Kipke also argued that when studying successful school systems around the world, members of the commission cherry-picked some standards while neglecting others.

“Finland, for example, allows students to go to any school they want,” Kipke said of one of the countries that was studied. “Kirwan doesn’t want to give school choice.”

District 33 Democrat Heather Bagnall wants to see the final language in any proposed bills, but she is “giddy” about the possibilities.

“It’s exciting to see something that is so innovative and forward-looking,” Bagnall said. “For a long time, we treated career development as a lesser path to college, not as an equal path to higher education.”

Delegate Brian Chisholm — a District 31B Republican — doesn’t see the proposals as an affordable option.

“Increases in property taxes, sales taxes and personal income taxes have all been mentioned,” Chisholm said. “It’s the camel getting its nose under the tent. It’s not affordable and doesn’t address the disruptive behavior problems we have.”

According to a map published in June 2019 by Education Week, Maryland spends $13,146 per pupil, above the national average of $12,756 but below states like Pennsylvania ($16,122), New York ($19,697) and Vermont ($20,540).

Republicans have also expressed skepticism because the last time the funding formulas were changed as a result of the 2002 legislation, another group, the Thornton Commission, was behind the recommendations. Their work produced mixed results.

Bost, who taught fourth and fifth grade in Baltimore County at that time, said schools did see student success and smaller class sizes until the recession in 2008.

“When we measured students based on academic outcomes, we saw great increases,” Bost said. “Then, when the recession hit and many of our local jurisdictions supplanted money that was coming from the state and they cut back on their funding, and even the state made some changes to the inflationary numbers, it was really the accountability to fund that dropped off. When that happened, you could see the progress of students start to stagnate and drop off.”

What Will Anne Arundel Pay?

According to data presented by the Kirwan Commission, Anne Arundel would not need to exceed its current spending until Fiscal Year 2028 when the added contribution would be $8.4 million, jumping to an additional $50.2 million in Fiscal Year 2029, and $95.9 million by Fiscal Year 2030. That last projection is fourth-highest among Maryland’s 24 jurisdictions, which is in line with Anne Arundel having the fourth-highest population. Prince George’s County ($360.9 million) and Baltimore City ($329.4 million) top the list in FY2030, with eight counties owing nothing more than the current spending.

Under the recommendations, state aid would increase each year as well, with Anne Arundel getting an additional $30.3 million (over what the law currently requires) in Fiscal Year 2022 and an additional $173.5 million by 2030.

How Will Maryland Afford The Changes?

Governor Larry Hogan is not the Kirwan Commission’s biggest supporter, mostly because of the cost involved.

“After more than three years of meetings, the Kirwan Tax Hike Commission has still failed to produce any plan to pay for its massive spending proposals, which will cost taxpayers more than $30 billion,” he said in an announcement. “Local leaders agree with me — they will not support the billions in crippling state and local tax increases that would be required. Some good ideas have been discussed, but the commission mostly focused on simply increasing spending, rather than real accountability measures and better results for our children.”

Lawmakers may legalize sports betting or recreational cannabis to bring in more state revenue. But neither of those proposals would put a dent in the $3.8 billion price tag.

State officials estimate that sports betting and recreational marijuana might generate between $50 million and $200 million each, with cannabis being more lucrative.

In an August report published by the Pew Charitable Trusts, Josh Lehner, senior economist with Oregon’s Office of Economic Analysis, explained the uncertainty. When trying to forecast the revenue of alcohol or cigarettes, the government can refer to decades of data. With cannabis, such data does not exist.

“For standard forecasting models, it’s helpful to have more detail about demographics, consumption and product types,” Lehner said. “We’re not there, and other states I’ve talked to aren’t there yet either.”

Final Thoughts

Democrats and Republicans agree that Maryland’s standardized test scores are in the middle of the pack; they differ on whether funding is the solution or if more accountability is the answer.

A showdown looms this session as both sides try to find a compromise on funding for public schools. Bagnall thinks the cost is worth it.

“On average, education has a one-to-seven return, $7 for every $1 invested,” Bagnall said, “but the statistical analyses of the Kirwan recommendation has that margin closer to one to 17, which is what they saw over a 40-year study in Pennsylvania, just with early childhood education investment.”

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