William “Brit” Kirwan will always be known for his work as president of the University of Maryland and then chancellor of the University System of Maryland. So it may be surprising that he counts those positions as less important than his volunteer work of late — re-imagining how the state’s public schools might become the best in the nation.
Kirwan chairs the Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education, known simply as the Kirwan Commission, which over the last two years has examined the best public schools in the world, from Finland to Singapore, and then tried to appropriate what works to Maryland. The commission also got advice from thousands of Marylanders about what wasn’t working in their local schools and what they dreamed about for children from pre-kindergarten through 12th grade.
Last month, the commission approved a preliminary report that focuses on four areas of improvement for the public schools, including raising the standards for the teaching profession and paying teachers more, increasing access to early childhood education, and providing both an academic and a career track for students so that no one graduates without the skills to get a job that pays a livable wage or go to college. The commission also wants children living in pockets of concentrated poverty to have access to schools with a range of services, including after-school and summer activities, health care and tutoring.
Over the next year, the commission will work on making recommendations to the legislature on a formula that can be used to split the $3.8 billion cost for the improvements between the state and local governments. The legislature is expected to take up the package of recommendations in the 2020 session, although advocates have asked for some funding for next school year.
Why do you feel this work is so important?
That was maybe the hardest thing I have ever done, and potentially the most important thing I have ever been involved in. We are talking about substantive changes in the way we do education in Maryland.
The schools are not serving our young people well. Now we have some good schools and we have some outstanding students, but there are not nearly enough of them. And this has dire consequences not just for the state but for individuals who are hoping to have a successful career and a high quality of life. Just think about it.
(Kirwan cited scores on national and international tests that show Maryland students score on average below the median. In addition, he said, research has shown that the funding formula the state uses to figure out how much each school system will get fails to provide equity to school systems with a higher percentage of low-income students.)
It has been difficult because the challenge, the charge to us, was so daunting. If you take it seriously to say: “How could Maryland schools perform as the best in the world given where we are now?” That is an enormous lift.
You bring together a group of 25 people who don’t know each other... Each one is representing a constituency with a vested interest in something. You have the collective bargaining interest. You have the business interests. You have the (state) superintendent. You have the county commissioners worried about the purse springs. For this group to have bonded and risen above their parochial interests is remarkable.
There are a lot of studies on equity and they always show Maryland as a regressive state. For me it is not just for some the quality of workforce or the strength of our economy. There is a moral issue here.
The idea that we are not providing the funding level to help people get out of poverty. And there is no way out of poverty today without a good education.
We have a governor who says he is supplying record education funding. He says he isn’t interested in increasing spending by $3.8 billion. How do you convince him?
I don’t want to focus just on the governor, although obviously he is critical to what we are trying to achieve.
I just want people to look at the report and look at where we are in the state and ask themselves, “Is this acceptable?”
I think there is a really powerful message in this report that we have to do better and a lot better. I have been going around talking to business leaders. They are getting energized by this report. A number of them have written letters to the governor and the leaders of the General Assembly.
I know the price tag gets people’s attention but I am just hoping the body politic will think about where we are in the state, think about the impact. It is a 10-year plan and we don’t have to fund it all this year. I did a mental calculation that if over the next 10 years the state would increase its revenues by 5 percent it would pay the state share for the cost of these recommendations. Is that too much to ask? To completely change the prospects for our state and for all of the children of our state?
What was the hardest thing in the past two years?
There were all these issues about funding and racial equity that became very contentious. I think we dealt with those very effectively. We brought on a consultant and basically got him to read our recommendations through the lens of equity. I think everybody was appalled when we saw the regressive nature of our current funding. Absolutely, everyone knew this was paramount. This had to be addressed. How we addressed it was the issue.
I think another challenging issue has been accountability. How do we know that if we invest this money we will get these results? There is skepticism out there. You can’t have the accountability for all the recommendations unless there is an entity that oversees all of those involved in implementing the recommendations. This idea of having this independent oversight board and getting a majority of the commission members to see the wisdom of that, I think was especially difficult.
If we can faithfully implement the recommendations it will transform education. We have these pockets of generational poverty around this state. That is immoral.
I think not only would this enable Maryland to have an education system as good as any in the world. I think we could be a model for the country.
So to you that is as important as any job?
Absolutely. If we could have every child have access to a high quality education that would be the greatest accomplishment to have been involved in.
Why did the commission not decide to look into integration?
What we have focused on is overcoming the regressive nature of our funding and investing significantly more dollars in schools serving high concentrations of poverty.
Not only can schools serving high concentrations of poverty become community schools and have wrap-around services, there will be extra resources for tutoring, for after-school academic programs, for summer academic programs.
This is carefully knit together quilt of recommendations and you can’t pull them apart.
Who asked you to do serve on the commission?
The governor and the speaker and the president of the senate.
How were you approached?
We have a vacation home in Deep Creek Lake and I was up there. And I got this call: “Would I consider doing this?” and I said, “Yes.”
Did you have any hesitation?
Not really. I have heard a lot of people think or say why in the world would he do this? It was obviously going to be a huge, huge challenge. It just seemed so fundamentally important. How could I say no to something that could make such a difference for our state?
There have been a lot of anxious moments and frustrations and anxiety but whatever happens, I feel enormously proud of what we as a commission have done.
You lost your wife during a period in which the commission was doing some of its most intense work. Can you talk about it?
We had been together 62 years. I sat behind her in the seventh grade. It was unbelievable. I took several weeks off and didn’t do anything. But she was also.. she worked in the schools. I came to realize that going back to the commission work was where she wanted me to be. So in a way I felt that I was doing what she wanted. But that was a very, very difficult time. It still is.
There is nothing I feel more important right now than to be a strong advocate for this report. I am ready to go anywhere and talk to anybody. There is so much at stake for our state.