When Maryland legislators leave Annapolis Monday night, they won’t have settled on landmark new funding formulas for the state’s schools. It looks like they won’t even manage to dedicate as much money to the causes of expanded early childhood education, higher teacher salaries and more holistic support for schools in challenging communities, among other things, as the Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education suggested would be needed in the next two years.
But education advocates can come away from the 2019 General Assembly session with a major victory: truly bi-partisan support for the principles and goals of the so-called Kirwan Commission recommendations. There will be fights to come over funding after the commission produces specific proposals for how costs should be divided among the state and local jurisdictions, and as the overall price tag increases during the next decade. But legislators demonstrated near-universal agreement that Maryland needs to make major changes to the way it educates its children if they are to succeed in the 21st century and that the Kirwan Commission has produced a compelling plan for how to do it.
The Senate voted 43-1 in favor of Senate Bill 1030, The Education Blueprint for Maryland’s Future. The only no-vote, from Sen. Chris West, a Baltimore County Republican, came not because he opposed the bill itself but because he was concerned that it was crowding out funding for school construction. (His district includes Towson and Dulaney high schools, both of which loom large in Baltimore County’s school facilities crisis.) “I hope next year we can find money not only for Kirwan but also school construction,” he said. Some of his fellow Republicans spoke in favor of the bill during the floor debate, acknowledging that conversations about funding in future years may be harder but praising Kirwan's concern not just with what we’re spending on our schools but what results we’re getting from those investments.
The House debate was somewhat more ideological, particularly in regard to an unsuccessful amendment to authorize the creation of private school voucher programs. But ultimately, as many House Republicans voted for the legislation as against it, with the GOP caucus offering particular praise for a provision of the bill establishing a state-wide inspector general for schools, which has been a top priority of Gov. Larry Hogan.
That's important because Mr. Hogan is the biggest wild card in the long-term debate about whether Maryland will be willing to make the difficult choices Kirwan implementation will require. The commission estimates that its recommendations would increase what Maryland spends on schools by nearly $4 billion over current levels when fully phased-in a decade from now, with the costs divided in some manner between state and local governments. Mr. Hogan has voiced general support for the goals of Kirwan, but he has balked at the cost. Indeed, finding that $4 billion will almost certainly require higher taxes, new revenue sources, cuts to other areas of spending or, most likely, a combination of the three. Despite the Democratic super-majority in both chambers of the legislature, it will be difficult to accomplish that without a significant investment of political capital from Maryland’s popular Republican governor.
After the Senate vote, a spokesman for the governor emailed The Sun to note the inclusion of the inspector general provision and the governor’s consistent demand for “real accountability as part of implementing the Kirwan recommendations.” But he declined to answer questions about whether Governor Hogan is satisfied with the legislature’s IG provision or whether it affects his overall willingness to provide funding for Kirwan recommendations.
We urge Governor Hogan to listen to what his fellow Republicans said about Kirwan — that this is not about sending more money to schools so they can do the same thing in the same way. It’s about making strategic investments in programs and policies that have been demonstrated to produce better results. It’s about making sure that Maryland’s students graduate from high school with the equivalent of an associate’s degree or an industry-recognized credential. It's about holding school systems accountable for spending the public’s funds in the most effective ways. It’s about measuring excellence not by what we put into our schools but by what students get out of them. If he accepts that message, he will sign this bill, which marks a first step for Kirwan, and become a champion for making its vision a reality.