Landmark Kirwan commission delays plan on school funding

Erin Cox
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun

A plan to revamp and increase spending on Maryland public schools will be delayed beyond next year’s General Assembly session, officials said Wednesday.

Lawmakers were set to spend the first few months of 2018 debating the first major overhaul of education policy in more than 15 years. Instead, that discussion will be pushed back until after the 2018 state elections.

William E. “Brit” Kirwan, leader of the commission issuing the policy recommendations, said Wednesday that his panel is moving toward consensus on recommending universal pre-K, a revamped pay structure for teachers and a new formula to more fairly distribute education funding across the state, among other measures.

However, there’s not enough time to calculate the costs of the commission’s recommendations or come up with suggestions for paying for them before the new legislative session begins in January, Kirwan said.

“There’s simply no point in producing a report the state can’t afford,” he said. “The alternative [to delaying it] is to have a wonderful report that is not based in fiscal reality.”

Sean Johnson, political director for the state’s largest teachers union, called the delay disappointing because it means unmet needs in schools will linger for at least another year. But he said it was more important to present changes that lawmakers feel comfortable approving.

“This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity,” Johnson said. “And if it takes a few more months to get it right, it’s worth it.”

The legislature created the Commission on Innovation and Excellence in 2016 to explore two questions: Should the state revise the 2002 funding formula that distributes school aid? And what major new education policies should the state enact to put Maryland public schools on a par with the best in the world?

The commission had a December 2017 deadline to answer those questions, and lawmakers put Kirwan, former chancellor of the University of Maryland system, in charge of the process.

The commission became known as the Kirwan Commission, and its recommendations have been highly anticipated in education circles. Nearly all of the eight Democrats running for governor have cited the impending report as they’ve discussed how to improve education in the state.

A consultant hired by the commission to review the current funding formula, known as the Thornton formula, determined that Maryland would need to spend about $2.9 billion more each year on K-12 education if all students were to have equal access to high-quality schooling. About $2 billion of that amount would need to come from the state, consultants said. About $7.9 billion of of the state’s roughly $43 billion annual operating budget is spent on K-12 schools.

That price tag does not take into account changes the Kirwan Commission would recommend to improve schools — proposals such as creating a way for quality teachers to earn more without having to leave their classrooms for higher-paying jobs in school administration, providing free or low-cost pre-kindergarten to every 4-year-old child in the state, giving more resources to at-risk students, and reinstating vocational training in many high schools.

Kirwan declined to say Wednesday whether the changes favored by the commission would have a price tag in the hundreds of millions or billions of dollars.

Increasing education funding by hundreds of millions or billions would likely require a funding stream to pay for it, according to budget analysts.

Delaying the report until the second quarter of 2018 means there will not be enough time in the coming General Assembly session to enact the changes before it is scheduled to adjourn in April.

It also means that state lawmakers and Gov. Larry Hogan would not have to vote on a potentially controversial school funding measure immediately ahead of an election year.

The Kirwan Commission does not expire until June 2018.

Kirwan said that a complex, and potentially costly, overhaul of education will require a lot of “persistence” to enact

“A silver lining in taking a little more time is it gives us a chance to make the work of the commission known throughout the state,” Kirwan said.

ecox@baltsun.com

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