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In Annapolis, Kirwan commission head sounds alarm about need to increase Maryland public school funding

Former University System of Maryland Chancellor William “Brit” Kirwan faced a phalanx of news cameras Tuesday and delivered a dire message: More than 60 percent of Maryland’s graduating high school seniors can’t read at a 10th-grade level or pass an Algebra I test.

“Too many kids are going through our schools and not ending up with the knowledge and skills necessary to have successful lives and careers,” the educator warned. “What will it mean for our state if we don’t change the current circumstances?”

Kirwan — who is leading a commission studying how best to improve Maryland’s public schools — joined Democratic leaders in Annapolis to rally support for legislation that would provide more than $1 billion over the next two years to begin implementing the commission’s recommendations.

But the legislation to spend hundreds of millions more in taxpayer dollars — without an identified funding stream — was met with skepticism by Republicans, who warned against raising taxes.

The Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education — nicknamed the “Kirwan Commission” — is recommending free, full-day prekindergarten for low-income 3- and 4-year olds; increasing standards and services so that all students are ready for college or a career upon graduating high school; and establishing a strong accountability system to oversee its recommendations.

Amelia Chasse, a spokeswoman for Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, said the governor is “open” to increasing funding for public schools, but wants to make sure accountability measures are in place.

“We will be reviewing the proposed legislation closely as it goes through the legislative process, and working to ensure that it includes appropriate accountability measures so that Maryland children get the education they deserve,” Chasse said.

To begin paying for the recommendations, the legislation calls for $325 million in increased funding from state taxpayers for public schools for fiscal year 2020 and $750 million in fiscal year 2021.

The funds would be allocated in part over two years as follows:

  • $275 million more for special education;
  • $150 million to provide a 1.5 percent average raise for teacher salaries;
  • $110 million in grants for schools with high concentrations of poverty;
  • $80 million to expand full-day prekindergarten in the state for 4-year-olds; and
  • $46 million for more services for struggling learners.

Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski praised the bill as an “important first step” toward ensuring schools “have the resources they need to provide our kids with the best education possible, including the resources necessary to better compensate our educators and to expand access to high-quality prekindergarten.”

The Kirwan Commission is continuing its work of deciding how precisely to fund its full recommendations — which would cost about $3.8 billion annually within 10 years.

The commission has yet to come up with formulas that would spell out how much the state has to pay and how much local jurisdictions contribute.

State lawmakers say new funding streams — such as legalizing and taxing marijuana for adult recreational use and sports gambling, among other proposals — likely will be needed to fund the full proposals in future years.

Democratic leaders say the money for the first year, however, can be found within the state’s $46.6 billion budget. Lawmakers and Hogan already have set aside $236 million in additional aid to school systems for the coming year.

House of Delegates Speaker Michael Busch said the lawmakers will ensure the programs get funded, even as the state may face less-than-forecast revenue this budget cycle.

“We’re having a write-down in our budget. People said, ‘You have to back off education.’ We said, ‘No,’” Busch said. “We have to make tough decisions. There are going to be some other programs that are going to be cut. No doubt about it.”

Christopher B. Summers, president of the conservative Maryland Public Policy Institute, argued that it’s irresponsible to dedicate funding without identifying a revenue stream to pay for it.

“It’s a reckless act to pass a spending mandate without an identified funding source,” Summer said. “This is a march to higher taxes in Maryland and everyone should be aware of that.”

Educators in local school systems, while praising an overall increase in school spending, said they were worried about having to provide matching funds.

“The critical piece is to not have unfunded mandates,” said Kathleen Causey, chairwoman of the Baltimore County school board. “If funding is made available through Kirwan Commission recommendations this legislative session, it will be helpful to fulfilling our mission for equity and excellence for every BCPS student.”

Howard County officials said they were not clear on the amount of additional funding the county schools would receive.

“We are encouraged by the possibility of additional state funding and are reviewing the legislation to prepare an analysis on how the legislation will benefit Howard County and account for any additional state requirements,” said spokesman Brian Bassett in a statement.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller called it the “most important” piece of legislation the assembly will consider this year.

Miller noted the state would begin requiring “matching funds from the counties” to fund the Kirwan recommendations, but the improvements have to carried out because Maryland is slipping in national education rankings.

“We’re going to find a way to get back to No. 1,” Miller said.

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