Maryland commission considers $4.4B increase to school funding, but advocates worry its work is too slow

A state commission debating a recommendation to increase spending in Maryland’s public schools by $4.4 billion annually is running up against a tight deadline: the start of next month’s General Assembly session.

Advocates for public school students are pushing the Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education to finish its work before lawmakers return Jan. 9. But the commission has yet to arrive at a final price tag for its plan to boost students’ performance — or figure out how to pay for it.

Among other initiatives, the so-called Kirwan commission — nicknamed for its chairman, former University System of Maryland Chancellor William “Brit” Kirwan — is considering recommending schools offer full-day education for 3-year-olds from low-income households; universal prekindergarten for 4-year-olds; increased funding for schools where many students live in concentrated poverty, and raises for teachers.

But the commission has not reached agreement on funding formulas that would determine how much of the programs would be paid for by the state or by local jurisdictions. Lawmakers will likely need those details before they can vote to approve the plan.

“We really need to wrap this up, so this session we can pass a strong bill that will really close the adequacy gap we’re seeing across the state,” said Bebe Verdery, director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland’s education program. “Kids are not getting what they need. It’s essential they finish their work and we can move this forward. … We’ll keep pushing to help get this over the finish line.”

Kirwan said Thursday the body’s work could extend into January, but he vowed to get as much done as possible before the start of the session.

“We’ll get as far as we can,” he said. “We’ll have a totally fleshed-out policy document, fully costed out with an implementation plan … The General Assembly will take our report and do with it what they will. If the General Assembly feels we need to do more work, they can ask us.”

Members of the 25-member commission debated Thursday in Annapolis whether their recommendations were affordable — but also whether they were ambitious enough.

Kirwan urged his colleagues to consider scaling down some aspects of their plan to be more palatable to lawmakers who might balk at a high price tag.

“Are there ways we can find some savings to increase the chances we can have a report that will gain the general public’s support?” Kirwan asked.

Others, though, thought the commission’s preliminary proposal — to phase in an annual increase to school funding of $4.4 billion over a decade — had already been shrunk enough from earlier, higher recommendations.

“We already made a lot of concessions. Each work group made a lot of concessions in the name of affordability,” said commission member Kalman "Buzzy" Hettleman.

“I would like to leave it to the political process to pare this back. This is a good place for the legislature to come in,” said commission member Margaret Williams, the director of the Maryland Family Network.

Steven Hershkowitz, a spokesman for Maryland’s teachers’ union, said students have lost out every year funding wasn’t boosted in Maryland — and shouldn’t have to wait another year.

“It’s been more than two years since this commission received a report that said public schools are underfunded by $2.9 billion every year,” Hershkowitz said. “That’s less school counselors than [students] might have had. That’s less individualized instruction than they might have had. That has some real implications for students. We’re hopeful, even though time is running out, they can finish their work.”

Republican Gov. Larry Hogan won re-election in November in part by running on a message of providing robust school funding, but also by promising fiscal restraint.

Hogan’s spokeswoman, Amelia Chasse, said the governor is awaiting the results of the commission’s work. She noted Hogan has urged the commission to include accountability measures in its proposals.

“Governor Hogan looks forward to working with the presiding officers and the commission to ensure strong accountability measures are a key component of this once-in-a-generation opportunity to strengthen Maryland's education system,” Chasse said in a statement.

If the preliminary recommendations of the commission stand, it would mean an estimated 30 percent increase to school funding levels in Maryland — whose costs would be split between the state and local governments.

The increases would be phased in, starting with an $800 million increase next fiscal year, followed by an increase of about $1.8 billion the year after that.

Hettleman described the increases as “extremely modest,” especially in the first several years.

“That is a very small amount of money for the near-term years,” he said.

But others noted the state has competing interests besides funding education, such as health care, public safety and transportation. The state currently spends about $8 billion of its $44 billion budget on elementary, middle and high schools.

“It’s fascinating sitting here to listen to this, because we also have serious asks when it comes to health and health care, transportation,” said Hogan’s budget secretary David Brinkley, a commission member.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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