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William E. “Brit” Kirwan addresses a standing room-only crowd at Dorothy I. Height Elementary gathered to demand that the necessary amount of money come through for the city’s historically underfunded schools.
William E. “Brit” Kirwan addresses a standing room-only crowd at Dorothy I. Height Elementary gathered to demand that the necessary amount of money come through for the city’s historically underfunded schools. (Talia Richman/Baltimore Sun)

Baltimore education advocates packed an elementary school auditorium Thursday night to gear up for what they see as a once-in-a-generation opportunity to revamp the way Maryland funds its public schools and ensure that every child receives a quality education.

The state’s so-called Kirwan Commission has put forward a $4 billion education funding proposal that would increase teacher salaries, bring in more counselors, improve career preparation programs, give extra support to schools serving children who live in poverty and expand free, full-day prekindergarten.

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Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, is ramping up his opposition to the plan’s anticipated cost — part of the reason so many people felt it was necessary to flood Dorothy I. Height Elementary and demand that the recommended amount of money come through for the city’s historically underfunded schools.

There was standing room only as education officials went over the details of the commission’s recommendations and rallied families to fight for them during next year’s General Assembly session, when legislators are expected to take more action. The group brought a pep rally-like energy to a discussion on complex funding mechanisms and policy changes.

“There are forces out there that don’t want to see the commission recommendations implemented,” said William E. “Brit” Kirwan, chairman of what is officially called the Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education. “Over the next six months, we are going to be in a battle for the soul of Maryland. What kind of state do we want to be?”

Aliyah Abid, a 17-year-old Baltimore City College senior, knows her answer: She wants to live in a state where “the amount of wealth surrounding you doesn’t affect the quality of education you’re able to receive.”

But there will be challenges.

While Marylanders overwhelmingly say they are willing to pay more in taxes to improve public education, according to a new Goucher College poll, more than three-quarters of them know nothing about the work of the Kirwan Commission.

As people entered the auditorium, they were handed a packet with a Kirwan Commission fact sheet and another aiming to bust myths about group’s work.

One idea it challenged? “The Kirwan Commission funding formula is too expensive to fund.”

By 2030, the funding formulas would require the state government to spend $2.8 billion more on schools and mandate $1.2 billion more from local governments for their county school systems, for a total boost of $4 billion annually. Baltimore alone would need to spend $330 million more on public schools, a number some leaders say will be challenging in a city dealing with high levels of poverty.

Hogan has said implementing the recommendations would require significant tax increases, and he’s nicknamed the commission the Kirwan Tax Hike Commission. Other elected officials also have expressed concern about how they will come up with the money that’s called for in the proposal.

“The teachers union can hold all the pep rallies they want, but it doesn’t change the fact that there is still no clear plan whatsoever for how either the state or the counties will pay this massive price tag," Hogan spokesman Mike Ricci said in a statement. "Marylanders deserve more accountability and better outcomes, not pie-in-the-sky unfunded spending proposals.”

Democratic leaders dispute this characterization.

Economic growth will cover some of the costs, according to Del. Maggie McIntosh, the Baltimore Democrat who is chairwoman of the House Appropriations Committee and a member of the Kirwan commission.

Legislators are considering other revenue streams, too, such as legalizing marijuana and sports betting; eliminating some existing tax credits; and expanding a tax on online sales from out-of-state companies.

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Earlier Thursday, Democratic senators decided unanimously in their caucus to recommend that Baltimore Sen. Bill Ferguson take over the gavel from longtime Maryland Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller. As Senate president, Ferguson, a former teacher who also was a commission member, will have a massive role in ensuring Kirwan’s passage. The Dorothy I. Height crowd cheered every time his name came up in discussions.

“We’re going to make this generational moment real,” said Ferguson, who raced from Annapolis to make it for the end of the meeting.

At the heart of Thursday’s event was a call to action, a plea to knock on doors, write letters and show up in Annapolis until the Kirwan proposals are fully funded.

“We need you to continue to raise your voices,” city schools CEO Sonja Santelises told the crowd in a recorded video message. “Do not let up until we win for every one of our young people. I’m counting on you to be relentless.”

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