School funding, early childhood education focus at Kirwan Commission hearing

Early childhood education, funding — especially for state-mandated programs — teacher compensation, and help for low-income and minority groups were the major concerns Marylanders raised Thursday night at the hearing for the Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education.

The 25-person commission, known as the Kirwan Commission after Chairman William Kirwan, is made up of senators, delegates and other leaders across the state, including Carroll County Public Schools Superintendent Stephen Guthrie.


The hearing, held at Frederick High School, brought out about 30 speakers who delivered testimony over nearly two hours. And while many of those who came out were Frederick County community members and leaders, their topics touched on issues that Carroll schools continue to face.

Kirwan spoke before testimony began, telling the small crowd that the commission, which was created in 2016, was given a precise charge with two parts: funding and educational practices.

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The General Assembly created the commission in 2016 to re-examine the education aid formula crafted by the Thornton Commission — named after Chairman Alvin Thornton — from 1999 to 2002. The formula was enacted by the legislature in 2002 and has governed the distribution of billions of dollars per year in school aid to local jurisdictions since then.

The commission is scheduled to produce a final report and recommendations in December so that it can be considered in the legislature's 2018 session.

"We are charged with developing policies ... so that Maryland's pre-K-12 system performs at the level … of the best performing countries in the world and states in the United States," he said. "Maryland schools are OK. But they can and should be much better."

Traci Tatum, the PTA president for the Frederick County Council, spoke about the importance of education funding in the state and the importance of that funding covering programs like pre-K.

"Funding for our schools must become a priority in Maryland," she said.

Early childhood programs are needed and provide a stable foundation of learning, she added.

"We have a long way to go in achieving what might be considered world-class education," Tatum said.

Jan Gardner, the county executive for Frederick County, spoke about updating the funding formula, adding that there's a funding gap.

"A significant state investment in Maryland schools is needed," she said, adding that the formula must be updated to address mandated state assessments, students in poverty and pre-K.

Gardner also emphasized the importance of local control — it's paramount, she said, and schools need flexibility.

"We are a very diverse state," she added.

James Rossi, of the Washington County Teachers Association, also brought up the need for teachers informed in trauma care.


Rossi said he's had students who have seen parents shot or stabbed, students who have no home, and students who have been exposed to human trafficking.

"These traumatic experiences have a direct impact on our students' ability to learn," he added.

Carroll County Public Schools Board of Education Vice President Bob Lord said that although he did not attend the hearing, his wife did, and with Guthrie on the commission, the CCPS school board has been kept up to date on what the commission is doing.

Lord said many of the issues, like funding and early childhood education that were discussed Thursday night, affect Carroll as well.

Lord said the discussion around early childhood education, and the possibility it will be universal across the state, leaves him torn. While many children would truly benefit from a pre-K program through the school system, CCPS cannot afford to support a universally mandated program on its own.

"If the state does put in universal pre-K, it's going to put a huge strain on every school system," he said.

And, schools aren't totally equipped to handle more kids of that age group, he said, because classrooms are specific for kindergarten and pre-k.

"We are going to have to have some more adjustments to our classroom space to accommodate these young learners," he added.

Lord also said discussions about teacher salaries are happening across the state, including in Carroll. This board and the previous one prioritized funding employees at negotiated costs to compensate them fairly, he said.

Much of this comes down to funding and the funding formula, which Lord said needs updating. The current formula doesn't take into account facilities, support staff and other things that cost the school a lot of money, despite declining enrollment.

"There are many other factors that basically are fixed costs," he added.