xml:space="preserve">
xml:space="preserve">
Advertisement

Think Kirwan is costly? Mediocre public schools are worse. | COMMENTARY

Annabelle Ament, 4 1/2, front, came with her brother, Devyn, 2, and their mother Natalia Skolnik of Baltimore City with other supporters of Kirwan Commission education reform legislation. Hundreds of supporters of the Kirwan education funding bill descended on Annapolis to attend the joint hearing and lobby legislators. Feb. 17, 2020 (Mother gave permission for photo)
Annabelle Ament, 4 1/2, front, came with her brother, Devyn, 2, and their mother Natalia Skolnik of Baltimore City with other supporters of Kirwan Commission education reform legislation. Hundreds of supporters of the Kirwan education funding bill descended on Annapolis to attend the joint hearing and lobby legislators. Feb. 17, 2020 (Mother gave permission for photo)(Amy Davis)

Annapolis turned into public education central on Monday with marches and speeches and a marathon 6-hour hearing on the recommendations of the Commission on Innovation & Excellence in Education, also known as the Kirwan Commission. Advocates including educators, elected officials and business leaders made a convincing case that Maryland needs to change course if lawmakers truly want the state to be competitive in the 21st century’s increasingly knowledge-based economy. Yet others continued to fret that taxes would have to be raised to pay for it. And while that’s likely true when all is said and done, that should not deter legislators from asking the essential question: What does Maryland need to do to raise the quality of its public schools to world-class standards? And once that is settled, the second question is this: How should the state balance its budget?

The point is subtle, but it’s important. Kirwan isn’t about taxes. It never has been. It’s about coaxing excellence from K-12 public schools. Once the state’s elected leaders decide what can be done on that front, education spending should be judged in the broader context of overall state spending. What can we afford? What are our priorities? That’s as true for tax dollars directed to paving streets or paying for state police cruisers as it is for underwriting public education. State government must live within its means. But what exactly are those means? That depends on what the residents of this state expect from their government. Sound simple? It’s actually rather a complex business.

Advertisement

First, it’s time to decouple Kirwan education reforms from taxes. Gov. Larry Hogan seems to only see education upgrades in this light, but he’s wrong. Just because a line item in the budget represents new spending doesn’t make it the most expendable or the cause of higher taxes. Politicians are to blame for this frequently-held belief. They seek to justify every tax increase with the most popular government purpose. Yet budgeting rarely works that way. Even when a tax is set aside for a specific purpose (like gambling dollars going to education), this often frees up general revenue for other expenses. There are useful one-to-one examples of taxes funding projects (gas tax revenue going to transportation spending like roads or buses, for example) but they are more the exception than the rule.

That doesn’t mean anything goes on the tax side of the ledger. Far from it. But taxes and spending decisions should be viewed in the larger framework. What do the residents of this state want, what is essential (versus what would be welcome but not necessarily vital) and what is a reasonable way to pay for it? This is not unlike how ordinary people make their own budget decisions. We set priorities. In some cases, we sacrifice. We cut fat or postpone less-crucial spending. But we do so by looking to the future. That’s why education deserves to be ranked high among the budget priorities, whether on a personal or government level.

But the second, and perhaps most important point as Annapolis dives deep into this debate is to keep the conversation open, honest and civil. Attacking Kirwan as a handout to the teachers’ union is not just insulting, it’s dishonest. Higher teacher pay isn’t a dividend, it’s essential to attracting and retaining the best and brightest to the profession. And on the other side? While it’s fair to point out that Kirwan recommendations are funded for the next three years, as advocates have, the ten-year price tag to the state of $2.8 billion per year is significant. If Democrats pass Kirwan this session but don’t at least make a down payment on that long-term cost, they will have failed their duty — if only because it puts Kirwan reforms at risk as the bill comes due.

As each week of the 2020 session goes by, we keep hoping the “other” Governor Hogan, the pragmatic fellow who claims to like bipartisanship and compromise, will emerge from hiding on this issue and offer ways to advance educational reform. His latest Facebook posting, lambasting lawmakers for not passing his “crime plan” as a matter of greater “life and death” importance than schools, suggests he’s still in some version of witness protection. We trust he will return to productive State House interactions soon. You want to reduce crime in Baltimore? Better schools represent a piece of that puzzle. As William “Brit” Kirwan observed on Monday, “My God, what an opportunity we have.” Amen to that.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement