In 2016, the General Assembly created the Commission on Innovation & Excellence in Education to recommend how best to upgrade the performance of Maryland’s K-12 public schools and make state aid formulas more equitable. After several years of research and debate, the panel’s 25 members finalized their recommendations last week. They cover a lot of ground from expanded pre-kindergarten instruction to improved vocational training, as well as better pay and enhanced training for teachers. But there is one thing the “Kirwan” Commission (the body’s informal name drawn from its chair, former University System of Maryland Chancellor Emeritus William E. “Brit” Kirwan) did not do: It did not tell Gov. Larry Hogan or members of the Maryland General Assembly how best to pay for education reform.
Naturally, this decision is now the focus of criticism of the Kirwan Commission. Commission members did not do something that they had no business doing. This is typical of what’s known as an “alternative facts” and “whataboutism” approach to debate that’s become so popular in the Trump administration in recent years. Rather than focus on individual recommendations of the commission or the overall problem of stagnant school performance in Maryland, the naysayers would like to condemn the entire report for not doing a job that they were not assigned — a task that, in reality, belongs to the governor and to legislators. Instead, they’ve described the Kirwan recommendations in the worst possible and misleading terms involving the most hated taxes being raised the maximum amount.
We’ve said it before, but let’s say it again: Governor Hogan’s response so far to the Kirwan Commission has been perhaps his single most disappointing moment in office. And while it’s all very well to fret about affordability of any new program whether it be education or beltway widening, the governor has gone around the bend with what are basically two reactions: First there’s his scorched earth take on Kirwan as the demonized “Kirwan Tax Hike Commission” and a union power play. And second, after proponents point out that Maryland residents actually want better schools and are willing to pay more for them, is his claim that no governor has spent more money on K-12 in this state than he. That last claim is absolutely true because increased enrollment, inflation and state law has forced it on him (but he doesn’t generally mention that bit of nuance); it’s not like he had much of a choice in the matter.
The expectation that the Kirwan Commission should be recommending how to set state budget priorities is beyond absurd. Local school boards don’t tell Baltimore city or the 23 counties how to fund education; they pass their budgets and leave it in the hands of the fiscal stewards who balance competing interests. The Maryland State Department of Education doesn’t tell lawmakers how to fund its share of the education mission either. The buck stops in the State House. That’s why Governor Hogan and his staff should have been at the table with the General Assembly’s fiscal leaders negotiating how best to proceed long ago. Should other parts of the budget be cut? Should taxes or fees be increased? Should it be some combination, or should the spending target of gradually increasing state aid to $4 billion in roughly 10 years be reduced or postponed? That’s how adults would handle the situation.
We’re all for accountability. Mr. Hogan even got the inspector general he wanted. But this notion that school systems, including a certain one headquartered on North Avenue, have wasted billions of dollars is ridiculous. And, frankly, so is this constant parroting of the line about the evils of “throwing” money at education. Does throwing money at a problem help? Let’s see. The U.S. threw the equivalent of $600 billion at NASA, and it put a man on the moon. We collectively threw a 94% income tax rate at the highest earning Americans during World War II and beat the Nazis. The nation continues to throw about $1 trillion at Social Security each year, and that’s kept millions of seniors from going penniless.
Governor Hogan may have a political constituency that loves to hear that any proposed education spending is “half-baked,” Baltimore is always bad, Democrats are evil and on and on, but we urge him to break out of this broken record. Kirwan has given him a once-in-a-generation opportunity to set Maryland on a better path. How best do get the job done isn’t the role of a former city school board member, the executive director of the Maryland Family network or the executive director of the Maryland State Education Association, although all hold seats on Kirwan. No, the job belongs to the governor and to lawmakers alone. It’s time to stop for all to stop ducking and start doing.