Reservations About The Kirwan Commission And $31.9 Billion Price Tag

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Let me start by emphatically stating a few facts before we begin our dive into this proposed legislation.

  1. We all want a world-class education system here in Maryland.
  2. We all want our kids to receive an exceptional education in a safe and productive learning environment.
  3. We all want our teachers, administrators, staff and schools to be properly compensated and funded.

How do we design a system that meets these expectations?

The Thornton Commission was tasked with meeting these expectations in 2002. I will leave the analysis of that commission’s successes or failures up to you, but it is worth noting that we are now back to the drawing board.

The Kirwan Commission is presently entrusted with providing a blueprint to deliver on these promises of a world-class public school system. The Kirwan Commission has rolled out its initial plan, and it is now titled “The Maryland Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education.” I concede to the architects of this plan that the positive and shiny new title seems much more engaging to the mind and avoids the inevitable pronunciation debate.

Regardless of the name, we all need a basic understanding of what changes should be expected and what results are anticipated from this extensive overhaul. How much will it cost, and who will pay for it? Does it address the other serious challenges many teachers face, such as disruptive and unruly students?

Without getting too deep into the weeds, I would like to cast light on two glaring elements of this proposal that give me serious concern. These two factors often get brushed over, but I feel they should be kept in mind when considering the possible unintended consequences and motives of this plan. If I were to look at this strictly through a business lens, it would scream to me, “If it results in a larger stream of revenue for us than we need more of it.” I am just the son of a bricklayer, so forgive me if my assessment is off base, but please hear me out.

To fully digest my hesitation with these two elements, let me give you my basic understanding of our current system.

Every student in Maryland has a root mathematical formulaic figure assigned to them. As an example, in 2019, every Maryland student had an average mathematical formula sum of $7,543 applied to them in state funding for education, an additional $7,507 in county or local government funding, $713 in federal funding and $85 in miscellaneous funding. This produced a $15,848 average-per-Maryland-student figure for funding in our school system. Here is where it gets tricky; the formulas call for additional funds to be applied when certain parameters are met by different student populations. The two formula categories that continue to immerge in my mind as conceivable catalyst to nefarious practices are the following:

  1. English as a second language students (ESOL)
  2. Students eligible for free and reduced meals

I am not denying that some students desperately need these services, and we should be doing everything in our power to meet these needs. These legitimate issues need to be addressed properly, but the large sums of money at stake could produce overt waste, fraud and abuse.

Looking at this strictly from a dollars and cents context makes me consider the following scenario.

Let’s pretend I own a business that makes widgets for the federal government. They have agreed to pay my business an additional 25% per widget for every left-handed, 6-foot-tall woman we hire and employ. It would stand basic reason that I would do everything possible to find, hire and encourage these individuals into my business. Sure, there is a cost to find and employ these individuals, but I am assured of the funds with very little accountability when it comes to a large government bureaucracy overseeing this incentive. Keep that in mind as we explore the funding formulas at play for this policy.

The current educational formulas used to allocate funds for students reward a larger dollar figure for students needing “free or reduced meals” and/or an additional amount of funds for ESOL students. As a whole, it makes perfectly good sense that these students carry a heavier cost to a school system. However, who is verifying that we are not experiencing major abuses in the calculations, data or formulas? I am all for ensuring that the hungry students are fed, and we are preparing young minds for the future, but is this ripe for waste?

Understanding these factors, does this provide counties and local governments a strong incentive to actively recruit more students lacking English speaking skills? Does the allure of financial gains add additional pressure to increase student enrollment in the free-and-reduced-meal-plan database? Is it possible that some of our decision makers are making policy that expands the number of students added to categories guaranteeing more revenue from Maryland? Could it be a factor in the efforts of some to have all-day pre k for 3- and 4-year-olds? I will let others far more intelligent than me debate the historical research on the benefits and pitfalls of all-day pre-K for 3- and 4-year-olds. It will, however, certainly guarantee more teachers, administrators and employees added to the pension system, school funds liabilities and union.

The last estimate I recall reading showed $5 billion in unfunded liabilities in the current teacher’s union pension system. Adding greater stress to this already vulnerable pension system could be tragic and endanger the future payments to our current teachers and employees. Furthermore, we presently have serious challenges with school construction and classroom sizes, so adding more students to our currently stressed system could have many negative consequences.

What will these educational reforms cost us as Maryland taxpayers over the next 10 years?

The best estimate, which can be found on page 137 of the Kirwan Report, shows increased funding of $4 billion per year, so if you add up years one through nine, the true cost is $31.9 billion. Our entire Maryland state budget for 2020 is $46 billion. It is 100% indisputable and undeniable that this will apply enormous pressure on the state and local budgets to increase taxes.

When we are talking about the mandatory spending of $31.9 billion, that has the potential to cut other vital services or even bankrupt our state, every question needs to be considered and answered with confidence. We as legislators owe this to all Marylanders but especially the future generations that will certainly have to pay for it.

I saw one estimate that projected a $28,000 total allocation in year 2030 for each Baltimore City student. This again makes me ponder the following questions:

What if certain schools have only a 50% attendance rate? Do we then assign a $56,000 value to the students who are showing up?

What about students who are bullied or threatened with violence on the way to school and discouraged from going?

We are in danger of losing some of these students forever due to the perils of certain schools and communities now. Would we not be better served to allocate those funds directly to each student so that they can be rewarded for achievement? I believe a system that had these funds follow the student and allowed them greater access to quality educational sources would be far more efficient, effective and just.

Might other resources, such as online learning tools or vouchers for school choice and charter schools, be far more beneficial to the students?

Are we robbing these young minds with unlimited potential of a brighter future by forcing them into failing schools or risking their own lives in route to school? Should we not be offering greater school choice through vouchers and charter schools for the children with the true eagerness to learn? These new policy proposals fail to mention vouchers, school choice or charter schools at all.

Mark my words, taxes will need to be increased everywhere to pick up this hefty tab!

What other additional revenue sources are proposed to be tapped in order to produce this unprecedented amount of money.

  1. Sales tax revenue from online purchases beginning in Fiscal Year 2020. This would be a tax on things such as Netflix, Amazon and retailers doing a minimum of 200 online transactions annually in Maryland. It is safe to say that 6% increase will be passed on to you.
  2. Mandated general fund expenditures redirected to education. Who do we take it from and who decides?

What happens if these revenue streams do not meet expectations and we face the real insecurities of cutting more vital services for our most vulnerable?

What do we expect to receive for this massive outlay of cash?

  • All-day pre-K
  • Teachers pay with no improvement or accountability measures tied to salary increases
  • Pension increases
  • New curriculums, tests and tutoring

I remain skeptical that this will really improve the educational value to our students and even more skeptical of whose hands end up grabbing the money. I would feel better if I knew for sure the kids were the true driving force behind this massive price-tag and overhaul.

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