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Legislators speak at a press conference announcing plans for expanding education through the Kirwan commission plan in Annapolis.

Implementing the recommendations of the Kirwan Commission was never going to be easy. It requires big changes in how we educate students, train and evaluate teachers and provide resources to school systems. And it will cost billions per year when fully phased in, money the state does not presently have.

Maryland House of Delegates passes $46.7B budget over Gov. Larry Hogan's objections

Maryland’s House of Delegates on Thursday overwhelmingly passed a $46.7 billion spending plan that boosts funding for the state’s public schools while cutting some of Gov. Larry Hogan’s favored proposals.

That reality came crashing home on Thursday when the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee and the Hogan administration made a double-barreled attack on the House of Delegates’ plan to provide full funding for the first two years of Kirwan initiatives — $320 million in the fiscal 2020 budget and a mandate for $700 million-plus in fiscal 2021. Gov. Larry Hogan, who has previously expressed reservations about Kirwan, sent a letter to the legislature decrying the lack of accountability measures for how the extra money would be spent. His budget chief, David Brinkley, who served on the commission, offered up dire predictions about the state’s fiscal future if the legislature moves forward with Kirwan funding. And senators on B&T offered up only about half as much money as the House over the next two years, arguing that the state could not responsibly do more under current fiscal realities.

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Those objections both have a point and miss the point at the same time.

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Mr. Hogan is right that a lack of accountability in how the money was spent from Maryland’s last big education funding increase in 2002 meant that the so-called Thornton formulas didn’t result in a big boost in student achievement. The funding was not tied to adopting evidence-based best practices in local school systems, in part because Thornton wasn’t designed to figure out what those were. Kirwan was. It calls for significant changes in both early childhood education and at the high school level, and its recommendation for higher teacher salaries is combined with higher standards for the profession. Mr. Hogan conflates the issue somewhat with his call for an inspector general to root out waste, fraud and abuse in school systems, but Kirwan needs and calls for an oversight entity to make sure the money is used as intended. The legislature should not approve the main body of Kirwan funding without it. But whether that means creating some new board or enacting reforms to make sure the State Department of Education is up to the task, it’s not as much of an issue in the initial year of implementation (which deals not with general funding formulas but specific initiatives, like expanded pre-K and support for special education).

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Mr. Brinkley is right in the sense that full implementation of Kirwan will require difficult choices on spending and revenue that haven’t been articulated to the public. We aren’t in a position to evaluate the projections his staff makes about the impact of full Kirwan funding on the state budget or the amount of increased taxes they say would be needed to pay for it. But he’s certainly right that lawmakers should be mindful that the state’s existing fiscal situation shows substantial out-year deficits and that a recession will come at some point. That said, those considerations didn’t bother the administration when Governor Hogan was proposing a variety of targeted tax cuts or the spending members of the House of Delegates cut to make room for the first Kirwan installment. And they certainly didn’t stop the governor from championing the casino “lockbox” amendment that will already mandate billions in additional spending on education in the coming years.

As for the senators on B&T, they are right to be mindful of the problems caused by the “spend first, figure out how to pay for it later” approach the legislature took with Thornton. But right now we’re not talking about anything more than the first two years. The House has already demonstrated that it’s possible to find $320 million for Kirwan in the fiscal 2020 budget. Given that the phase-in of the lockbox amendment will already require another $125 million for schools in fiscal 2021, getting up to the House’s proposed mandate for 2021 is hardly insurmountable.

The House is right in showing a sense of urgency about moving forward with Kirwan. Every year that passes is another lost opportunity for Maryland’s students. Kids don’t get a second chance. Yes, full Kirwan implementation will require sacrifices that we haven’t fully appreciated yet, but that’s no reason not to move forward with what we can.

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