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Considering Kirwan: Carroll politicians fear repeat of Thornton commission; MSEA supports recommendations

On its surface, the proposal that Maryland increase education funding by $4 billion statewide proposal appears beneficial to Carroll County — Carroll wouldn’t have to provide any additional local funding for schools — but some local elected officials doubt this proposal is as positive as it seems.

The Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education, more commonly known as the Kirwan commission, has been studying how to improve Maryland’s public schools, and on Tuesday it put forward a proposal containing recommendations that would — if made into state law — significantly increase funding for public schools across the state over the next decade, requiring some counties to contribute more.


The funding and spending recommendations vary across the state.

Whereas Carroll and Howard counties wouldn’t have to expend any additional local funding for public schools, Baltimore city would have to nearly double its spending. Carroll would stand to gain an extra $54 million in schools funding from the state.


Carroll County Commissioner Stephen Wantz, R-District 1, said he was “pleasantly surprised" by Tuesday’s outcome.

“While it’s clearly good news, for now I remain very apprehensive about where it’s going to go once it gets to the General Assembly," Wantz said in an interview. “A great idea can start at the beginning of a legislative session in Annapolis and by the time it gets to the end it looks completely different than what it did at the beginning.”

Wantz has voiced concerns about the Kirwan work group during Board of Commissioners meetings — particularly regarding how the state would pay for it. Wantz said Friday it’s “too early” to say whether he feels comfortable spending money on county projects after hearing this news, even if it appears Carroll would be off the hook when it comes to extra schools funding.

“There is certainly a lot more that has to be accomplished before it’s final," Wantz said. “The money’s going to have to come from somewhere.”

Wantz said he, like his colleagues, will be watching the General Assembly closely to see how the Kirwan situation unfolds.

“I got my fingers crossed, but I’m not jumping up and down with glee yet," he said.

State officials doubt Kirwan, recall Thornton

Del. Susan Krebs and state Sen. Justin Ready, R-5, in separate interviews, both voiced the worry that the Kirwan commission will amount to a repeat of the so-called Thornton commission.

The Bridge to Excellence in Public Schools Act of 2002 created a “state school aid formula to ensure that schools and school systems have the resources necessary to provide every child with an adequate and equitable education,” according to the Maryland State Education Association website (MSEA). This funding system was created based on recommendations from the Commission on Education Finance, Equity, and Excellence, commonly referred to as the Thornton commission, after its chair Alvin Thornton.


Krebs was president of the Carroll County Board of Education when the Thornton commission rolled out its plan, she said, and the Kirwan commission reminds her of that time.

“It’s been all these years and we haven’t seen the achievement with it," Krebs said. “We have seen no appreciable difference in reading scores with students."

She said she wonders what will make this investment into education different from the last.

“What did we get from the last investment of Thornton?” Krebs said. “From what I’ve seen, we have not gotten improved student outcomes out of it."

Ready said that while he has voted for increases in education spending in the governor’s budgets in the past, he isn’t convinced Kirwan is the answer to improving schools.

Seventeen years after Thornton, “according to the Kirwan commission, not according to Justin Ready, but according to the Kirwan commission, we’re falling behind, it’s been a failure, or at least it hasn’t succeeded," Ready said.


In Ready’s view, there are “certain pockets of the state” — he wouldn’t say which — where the “achievement gap is much higher.” He suggested it might make more sense to address the deficits in education locally rather than by raising funding across the state.

“I don’t feel like I can support the dramatic spending increase and committing to a course of action that expensive for 10 years with no real direction or accountability as to how we’re going to define success," Ready said.

He and Krebs each said they want to know how success will be measured, how more funding will make a difference, and how the state will afford it all. Krebs and Ready said they are fearful the revenue will be put on all Marylanders to supply, and that Carroll countians would bear the burden for others’ deficits in education.

“Even if you did raise taxes it would be too expensive," Ready said.

Krebs voiced concern over attendance, recalling a recent time in Baltimore when she saw “squeegee kids” washing vehicles during the middle of a school day.

“You can’t teach a kid that doesn’t come to school,” Krebs said.


Del. Haven Shoemaker, R-5, wrote in an email that he believes Gov. Larry Hogan’s reaction to the recommendations of the Kirwan commission is “correct" and said the commission’s proposal lacks accountability."

Hogan has warned the recommendations would require significant tax increases and has been referring to the commission as “the Kirwan Tax Hike Commission.”

The commission was not charged with suggesting how state and local governments would pay for the increased spending. That will be left to the governor, state lawmakers and local leaders.

“Throwing money at a problem isn’t the way to improve it,” Shoemaker wrote. “That’s been shown through the extra millions and millions that got shoveled out on education after Thornton passed in 2002 without any appreciable improvement in outcomes. This spending requirement would have dire consequences for Maryland taxpayers.”


Elected officials were pleased by at least one aspect of the Kirwan commission’s recommendations ― the big zero under local funding required for Carroll County.

Wantz, who has been a commissioner for nearly five years, said Carroll has always gone above the Maintenance of Effort to public education, at least in his time. The Maintenance of Effort, or MOE, is a law requiring counties to provide schools with funding per pupil no less than the prior year.

Wantz, Krebs, and Ready expressed contentment over the Kirwan commission’s apparent recognition of Carroll County’s past effort to fund education.

Teachers union presents counterpoint on Kirwan

Cheryl Bost, president of the MSEA teachers union, offered a few examples of how funding based on the Kirwan commission’s recommendations would benefit schools.

“As a teacher, if my working conditions are good and I have the materials that I need and I have the support of, say, the school counselor and other people, I’m more likely to stay and I’m more likely to feel good about doing my job," Bost said. "And if I feel good about doing my job and I stay, then students are going to be better served.”

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Bost was a fourth-grade teacher at a Title I school in Baltimore County when the Thornton commission rolled out funding. For one, she said, she gained a much-needed reading specialist for her classroom.


“We did see improvements,” Bost said. “We saw students making progress.”

Her school experienced “great gains,” she said — until the Great Recession. The way Bost tells it, counties were strapped for money in 2008, contributed less to schools and relied on Thornton funding, she said.

“So I think it’s unfair to say, ‘Oh well, Thornton was a failure.’ It was a time of the economy when people scaled back their contribution," Bost said. “If anybody wants to say Thornton failed, it was the lack of the funding and investment that went into it after 2008.”

MSEA is supportive of the Kirwan commission’s work, according to Bost. The union sees it as an investment in public education, which Maryland badly needs, she said.

According to Bost, 47% of Maryland teachers leave the profession after their first three years in the job, and about 60% of Maryland teachers are from outside the state.

“We have to take this opportunity," Bost said. "It’s been almost 20 years since we’ve re-examined how we’re funding our schools. We’re at a deficit.”