It was disappointing, although perhaps not surprising, to learn last week that the Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education, more commonly known as the Kirwan Commission after Chairman William "Brit" Kirwan, is not going to meet its Dec. 31 deadline to present ideas for a new state funding formula for schools.
Lawmakers in Annapolis were expecting to spend much of the 90-day session, which begins in January, debating a major overhaul of state education policy, including the funding formula. The current formula known as Thornton, weighs student enrollment and relative wealth of the jurisdiction as the primary factors to determine how much money local school systems receive from the state.
Carroll County has been hit particularly hard in recent years by the funding formula, because of how relative wealth is calculated combined with significant losses in the number of students. Carroll ranks 10th among 24 jurisdictions in per-pupil wealth, but lost more students — 302 from fiscal year 2017 to fiscal year 2018 — than any other county in Maryland. Baltimore City, which has also seen a significant drop in state dollars because of the Thornton funding formula, is the only jurisdiction to see a bigger drop in enrollment numbers. The current formula doesn't take into account facilities, support staff and other line items that school systems' must pay for, regardless of enrollment figures.
A few weeks ago, during a meeting between the Carroll County Board of Education and the county's delegation to Annapolis to discuss a number of items, including school funding, Sen. Justin Ready lamented that the commission spent too much time talking about the "fun stuff" and not enough time talking about how to pay for it all. While we won't necessarily agree with the "fun stuff" assessment — the Kirwan Commission has spent much of its time developing ideas that should improve education in Maryland for years to come — we concur that the funding formula is of utmost importance. Certainly, there is merit in determining what you are going to be paying for before you decide how you're going to pay for it, but the commission may have been wise to spend a little more time working out how to fix funding problems that are currently plaguing education before developing ideas that will require even more money.
Stephen Guthrie, the superintendent of Carroll County Public Schools and one of 25 members of the Kirwan Commission representing all of Maryland's public schools superintendents, told MarylandReporter.com that he understood the need to delay in order to reach consensus among the commission's members, but acknowledged "we have a current need to correct funding formulas."
Guthrie should know. Carroll schools are facing a $12 million funding gap in the next fiscal year because of inflationary expenses and negotiated teacher contracts. The Board of County Commissioners has already pledged to increase funding for education by about $4 million next year, but that still leaves an $8 million shortfall. The county's delegation to Annapolis, with the help of Gov. Larry Hogan, has been able to secure some hold harmless funding in recent years, but there's no guarantee more is on the way — and it certainly won't be to the tune of $8 million.
Annapolis lawmakers, on both the right and the left, were counting on the Kirwan Commission to present recommendations to fix the formula to help struggling school systems like Carroll and Baltimore City, which are both losing students en masse, albeit not necessarily for the same reasons.
However, there is no reason to believe Gov. Hogan and state legislators were going to come together and sing "Kumbaya," once they received the recommendations. It was likely going to be a contentious session had the focus been on school funding, compounded even more by election-year politics in 2018.
In that regard, there is a bright side to the delay. We would encourage the Kirwan Commission to act diligently to wrap up its work and be able to deliver recommendations before the primary election at the end of June, making education reform a key election year issue for those running for seats in the House of Delegates, state Senate and for governor.
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Knowing where candidates stand on the recommendations should help voters who place high value on education policy and funding reform make important decisions at the ballot box, and perhaps lead to a smoother legislative session in 2019 when the recommendations will need to be put into law.