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Maryland legislative leaders unveil broad education bill based on Kirwan panel's recommendations

The statewide panel charged with changing how Maryland funds public schools for the next decade is still months away from finishing its work.

But the General Assembly’s Democratic leaders wasted no time in taking the panel’s preliminary recommendations and crafting legislation they hope will provide more money for high-poverty schools and establish a mandate for universal pre-kindergarten.

At a news conference in Annapolis on Thursday, the state’s top Democratic lawmakers joined with former University of Maryland System Chancellor William E. “Brit” Kirwan, who chaired the funding panel, to unveil legislation they framed as a sweeping measure to help the poorest schools, among other goals.

Their announcement came a day after Republican Gov. Larry Hogan held his own news conference to propose a plan to guarantee that $4.4 billion in casino revenues are reserved for schools and not depleted by other spending.

The panel, known as the Kirwan Commission for its chairman, has been working for 18 months to devise new funding formulas for Maryland’s public schools and recommendations for policies to keep the state’s education system among the nation’s best.

“Maryland simply cannot expect to be globally competitive if it doesn’t have the workforce to match,” Kirwan said. “Maryland schools at present are a long way from being the best in the world.”

The panel’s preliminary report released at Thursday’s news conference does not include any cost estimates but suggests that any new funding formula must be sufficient to finance universal pre-kindergarten for students of all incomes and provide more money for schools in low-income neighborhoods.

The recommendations also seek to devise a way to pay teachers more, establish more career and technical programs, and develop a more challenging curriculum for high-achieving students who want to quickly attain associate’s degrees.

Panel members also indicated support for an independent body — separate from the Maryland State School Board — that would demand accountability for any additional state money allocated to schools. In 2016, a Kirwan Commission consultant said the state should spend another $1.9 billion a year on schools.

The commission will work until later this year to recommend how to implement and fund its recommendations.

That’s where the legislation announced Thursday by Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, House Speaker Michael E. Busch and fellow Democratic lawmakers comes into play.

They want to pass a bill in the current session that ends in April to get some of that new money flowing for the next school year.

Miller said the preliminary report demands excellence in education.

“We can make certain that every student that graduates from high school is college-ready or job-prepared,’ he said.

Citing the state’s fall in education rankings from No. 1 a few years ago to No. 6 now, Busch said the report points out a path forward, especially in ensuring Maryland has well qualified teachers in the schools.

“We want to make sure we are attracting the best and the brightest to the classrooms,” he said. “We want to make sure we have the funding in those classrooms to lower the class size.”

Commission member Joy Schaefer called the legislation “more of a stopgap” measure that would start some of the reforms by the next school year. Most of the items, she said, are an expansion of existing programs that could be rolled out easily.

“It is only going to put us in a better position when we ask for more substantial legislation in 2019,” Schaefer said.

The legislative leaders said they will have the votes to pass the proposal.

When Hogan announced his own education funding measure Wednesday, he took the opportunity to question why the commission still hasn’t released a final report.

The governor said “you don’t hear about the Kirwan Commission any more” and suggested “we need to send a search party to find out where they went.”

Saying she was “ticked” about Hogan’s remarks, House Speaker Pro Tem Adrienne Jones noted Thursday that two Hogan Cabinet members serve on the Kirwan Commission, which had sent the governor its preliminary findings last month.

Hogan spokesman Doug Mayer said the governor was only expressing a widely held frustration that the commission had not submitted its final recommendations after 18 months of work.

“The worst-kept secret in Annapolis is that the Kirwan Commission punted because they couldn’t deal with the political consequences of recommending that Montgomery County get less aid for education,” Mayer said.

Montgomery, an affluent county with the state’s largest population, is a Democratic stronghold where education will certainly be a top issue in this years governor’s election.

Despite Hogan’s criticism, Mayer said the governor is “absolutely not” writing off the commission’s work.

The Democrats’ proposed legislation includes spending mandates — most relatively small — of the type Hogan generally opposes. For example, it requires $2 million to fund a teacher scholarship program created in 2014 and never included in the budget.

Nevertheless, Mayer said, the administration is happy to look at the proposed bill.

“It’s an important issue,” he said. “We look forward to seeing it debated.”

Significant debate is expected given that the commission is charged with reordering the policy priorities and funding formulas that could transform the delivery of public education in Maryland.

“It is not tinkering with education, it is a complete revamping of public education,” said Steve Guthrie, who represents school superintendents on the commission.

For the past decade public education leaders have continually highlighted how U.S. students trail the achievements of pupils across the world. The commission has focused much of its efforts on examining elements of successful education systems in other countries and in high performing U.S. states to devise a strategy to improve Maryland schools, Guthrie said.

Parents and teachers should care about the panel’s work because it will affect every school in the state, said Schaefer, who is also a Frederick County school board member.

The commission is devising the plan for “how money will be targeted and distributed for the next decade.”

Bebe Verdery, the education director of the ACLU of Maryland, said she is encouraged that the commission “has acknowledged the critical need to provide more services and staffing for children in neighborhoods and schools of concentrated poverty.”

Guthrie agreed but added caution.

“The question is not, ‘Can we do it,’ but, ‘Can we pay for it?’” he said. “I don’t know the answer to that.”

mdresser@baltsun.com

twitter.com/michaeltdresser

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