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William Kirwan tells Maryland lawmakers about commission's proposals to improve schools

Associated Press

Maryland can either continue on a path of mediocrity in K-12 education, or invest in putting schools on track toward performing with the world's best, the chairman of a state commission told lawmakers Thursday.

William Kirwan, a former chancellor of the state's university system, outlined recommendations from the Maryland Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education, whose 25 members were tasked with updating education funding formulas that were last raised in 2002.

"This is a really critical moment for our state," Kirwan said. "We can continue making incremental changes on, quite frankly, our mediocre status or we can be bold and change the future for our children and state."

The commission, which was formed in 2016, is making recommendations in five major policy areas, including investing in early childhood education and increasing teacher pay. The recommendations also include implementing rigorous curricula, providing more support to struggling schools and creating accountability for underperformance.

Fully implementing the commission's recommendations would cost an estimated $3.8 billion a year in a decade. The panel decided to keep working on how the state and local governments would divide that cost. Kirwan said a work group will keep working on how the state and counties would pay for the long-term goals and make recommendations next fall.

Lawmakers are expected to take up legislation to adopt the panel's policy framework this session. The commission is recommending lawmakers set aside up to $325 million to jump-start the panel's recommendations. Part of that includes setting aside $29 million to expand pre-K for 4-year-old students and allocating $75 million for teacher salary increases.

The commission also is recommending lawmakers reserve $750 million for fiscal year 2021 as the state's share of implementing the plan's recommendation for the first year.

Kirwan told lawmakers the commission's work led to some disappointing conclusions.

"The harsh reality is that in terms of learning outcomes, our schools and students perform at a mediocre level in the country ... in a country that performs at a very mediocre level globally," Kirwan said.

He said fewer than 40 percent of high school graduates are assessed as "career- and college-ready" by the state's own assessments. Maryland also has large achievement gaps based on income, race, disability and other student groups, Kirwan said, and more than half of Maryland public schools have 40 percent or more of their students eligible for a free or reduced-price meal.

Kirwan noted that Maryland education funding, including state and local funds, is among the most regressive in the nation. That means that districts with a high proportion of low-income students receive less funding than schools serving wealthier communities. Kirwan also pointed out that high-performing systems spend significantly more on schools serving low-income students than those serving students in wealthier communities.

Maryland also has problems retaining teachers, Kirwan said, noting that average salaries for teachers in the state are 25 percent below those of professions with comparable education requirements.

Maryland ranks 11th in per-student K-12 spending, and 19th when adjusted for regional cost differences, Kirwan said.

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