Advisory panels say improving Maryland's public schools will require expanded pre-K and changes to teacher pay

A commission examining how to overhaul Maryland’s public schools system received far-reaching recommendations Thursday that call for major expansions of early childhood education and a change in how teachers are paid.

The Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education heard recommendations from three of its work groups as the panel moves into its final phase of writing a highly-anticipated report for the General Assembly and Gov. Larry Hogan.

Final decisions on the full commission’s recommendations are expected at its Sept. 5 meeting.

The Kirwan Commission, named for Chairman William E. “Brit” Kirwan, has been conducting a comprehensive analysis for two years of the needs of public school education in Maryland and how possible fixes should be funded.

Judging by the reports of its first two work groups, the panel is not inclined to recommend small, incremental steps. Rather, they appear to be following the urging of Kirwan, a former University System of Maryland chancellor, to think big.

“We could do what everyone else is doing, but we decided to take it a step further,” said Montgomery County Councilman Craig L. Rice, who chairs the commission’s work group on early childhood education.

Sen. Paul Pinsky, who leads the work group on “high quality teachers and leaders,” said his panel is recommending significant increases in educators’ pay in exchange for holding them to more “rigorous” standards.

“We’re talking about raising standards to make it harder to enter the profession,” the Prince George’s County Democrat said. “It’s expensive — let me be very clear.”

The commission is not at the point of putting a price tag on its recommendations, but the early indications are that its recommendations are going to be costly and politically volatile. The panel itself is more the creature of the legislature’s Democratic leadership than of Hogan, but the governor’s budget secretary, David Brinkley, is a commission member.

Brinkley, who also sits on the pre-kindergarten work group, remained silent through Rice’s presentation. He described the spending envisioned in the proposals as “a big ask” and questioned what the fiscal impact would be on local governments.

Early childhood education has emerged as a heated political issue in the gubernatorial campaign as Hogan has criticized Democratic challenger Ben Jealous over seemingly-conflicting statements on how far he wants to go in extending pre-K programs to 3-year-old children.

Jealous has been a vocal supporter of expanded early childhood education, saying it could be funded largely by legalizing and taxing marijuana for recreational use. Hogan spokeswoman Amelia Chasse said the governor supports expanding pre-K “with the understanding that it must be done within the confines of a balanced budget.”

Rice, a Democrat, outlined a sweeping plan to extend availability of publicly financed pre-K education in Maryland over a decade to all 4-year-old children and all low-income 3-year-old children.

The work group called for providing the service at no cost to families earning less than 300 percent of the federal poverty line, or roughly $75,000 for a family of four. Families of that size earning $75,000 to $150,000 could send their 4-year-old children to pre-K paying fees on a sliding scale. Those earning above $150,000 would pay the full cost.

According to the work group, research shows that pre-K “yields a high rate of return to society” by reducing the costs of poor health, high dropout rates, poverty and crime.

Rice said the work group set the phase-in period at 10 years to give school systems time to train educators and find classroom space.

The commission was urged to adopt a recommendation that the state make pre-K classroom space a priority at a time when the competition for limited school construction money is fierce. Until new classrooms are available, the work group said, local school systems should look for space in such places as community and senior centers.

The work group recommended that early childhood education be offered by a mix of public school systems and “community-based providers” receiving public funding. To qualify, private providers would have to adopt stringent policies against discrimination on the basis of age, race, national origin, disabilities or sexual orientation.

Some of the recommendations could set off a political backlash, including one that calls for developing a Kindergarten Readiness Assessment tool to help teachers identify which children may need additional help and to track the performance of pre-K programs. Such programs have run into political opposition in the past.

Nevertheless, state school Superintendent Karen B. Salmon, a commission member, welcomed the early childhood recommendations.

“Overall, I am just so excited about this report,” she said.

The recommendations of the teacher-focused work group call for more rigorous testing to obtain certification and continuing education in their core subjects. The group also called for prospective educators to have a full school year of practical classroom experience before they complete teacher training.

The panel’s proposals would raise the licensing standards for new teachers to the levels of those in top-performing nations. The commission already determined that the United States and Maryland now rank in the middle of the pack.

The panel wants to raise teacher pay to levels comparable with other professionals such as accountants and registered nurses. The report calls for a pay increase of 10 percent over the next three years to compete with salaries in high-ranking New Jersey and Massachusetts.

Pinsky, a longtime ally of teacher unions, said some of union members may face challenges adjusting to a pay system in which raises don’t come automatically with each year of service. But he said that by rewarding national certification with sizable pay raises, younger teachers may be able to reach higher salaries earlier in their careers.

“It’s going to be a transition process,” he said. “We want to expect more from teachers and have higher standards and pay them commensurately.”

Commission member Steve Waugh, a Republican state senator from St. Mary’s County, said the state should push to attract teachers from across the nation.

“We should be absolutely thinking about robbing the other 49 states,” he said.

Baltimore Sun reporter Liz Bowie contributed to this article.

mdresser@baltsun.com

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