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Kirwan commission needs to do it right, not fast

Some education advocates are lamenting the Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education’s decision to delay its recommendations until after this year’s General Assembly session. They are certainly right that the inequities that remain in Maryland’s school funding system and its inadequacies in ensuring that all students get a world-class education need to be corrected sooner rather than later. A delay of a year in implementing the reforms that should follow from the commission’s work will inevitably leave thousands of children behind. But given the political realities of enacting as monumental (and potentially costly) a piece of legislation as one to implement the recommendations of what is known as the Kirwan Commission, we’re much more likely to get a good product by waiting than by rushing.

The headlines that have emerged from the commission’s meetings so far have largely centered on how expensive its recommendations might be. A consultant at one point advised the commission that Maryland should be spending an additional $2.9 billion a year on its public schools, with the state picking up most of the cost and the counties the rest. But as the commission’s work has gone on, the funding question has become more complicated. The group was charged not just with updating the existing school funding formulas but also with determining what Maryland needs to do to be competitive with the best school systems in the world. That has eventually led the commission to the conclusion that what is needed is not so much a revision of our current funding system but a more fundamental change to our approach. The commission doesn’t have the details ironed out yet and won’t be able to produce reliable cost estimates for its proposals, which are likely to include things like universal pre-K and expanded career and technical education, by its current Dec. 31 deadline.

Experience suggests an election year is not a good time to consider major education funding reform anyway. Fifteen years ago, the General Assembly adopted the current funding formula based on the recommendations of what was known as the Thornton Commission. It called for the state to ramp up its support for K-12 education by billions of dollars over several years, and gaining passage even in an overwhelmingly Democratic General Assembly required compromises and wheel-greasing — and, most pertinently of all, a willingness to overlook the question of how the state would pay for it. Many expected at the time that the Democratic lieutenant governor, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, would be elected the next governor and would sign off on a tax increase. She didn’t win, and that didn’t happen. Maryland experienced chronic budget problems for years thereafter, and despite the eventual tax increases under Gov. Martin O’Malley, the Thornton formulas were never fully funded as intended. The amount by which Baltimore City has been shortchanged, for example, far exceeds the amount of the deficit officials announced last year.

The Kirwan commission isn’t just about throwing more money at the school system. The commission has discussed a wide variety of possible reforms, though it has not yet made specific recommendations. Some of those eager for an infusion of cash may not like all of them, including changes to teacher training, standards and compensation. The Maryland State Education Association (which has a representative on the commission) lamented the delay, but would its members applaud if the commission recommended to move away from a salary model based on seniority and the collection of advanced degrees and toward one that provides ladders of opportunity for the best classroom instructors? The commission may well recommend not just more money but that existing funding be re-distrubuted to ensure that those who need the most support get it. That could be a hard sell in wealthier counties. The report may call for changes to how and where teachers are trained that could upend the state’s university system. Those sorts of reforms and others could prove just as controversial as the funding, and they could be just as consequential in improving student outcomes.

The delay moves all those issues out of an election-year General Assembly session and right into the thick of a governor’s race. That could be a good thing, particularly given that we’re all but guaranteed an unusually competitive general election race between the Republican incumbent, Gov. Larry Hogan, and whatever Democrat emerges from a crowded primary. Consequently, it will be hard for any candidate to get away with promising the moon without a plan for how to make it happen. Some of the candidates have already begun rolling out plans for education (and one, state Sen. Richard Madaleno, sits on the Kirwan Commission), but the release of the report in the second quarter of next year will provide a thoroughly vetted, research supported baseline for the policy debate that will follow. All of the candidates will be able to say precisely what reforms they will support and how they will pay for them. Voters should demand it.

In the meantime, though, Governor Hogan and the current General Assembly aren’t off the hook for this year. We know the current funding formulas and inflationary caps placed on them during the recession aren’t working. Baltimore City’s isn’t the only school system that is being squeezed as a result. We may not be able in the next legislative session to adopt formulas that will work for the next generation, but our elected officials ought at least to be able to ameliorate a clearly broken system in the short term.

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