William E. "Brit" Kirwan, chair of the Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education, explains the Kirwan Commissions recommendations for Maryland's public schools. (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore Sun video)

The Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education has been at work for more than two years, and the basic outlines of its recommendations for how to make Maryland’s public schools competitive on a global standard have been out for a year. But last week’s meeting, when analysts finally started to put a price tag on it all, really got people’s attention. A number like $4.4 billion has a way of doing that. Plenty of details remain to be worked out — most pertinently, how much of the cost should be borne by the state government and how much by the counties — but the raw figure is already producing some backlash from outside groups and some squeamishness among members (including the chairman, William E. “Brit” Kirwan) about sending such a big ask to the governor and General Assembly. How this plays out could be one of the most consequential developments in Maryland in the early 21st century. We need to take a moment to step back and consider exactly what choices are before us and what they mean. Here are four things to keep in mind:

A state commission debating a recommendation to increase spending in Maryland’s public schools by $4.4 billion annually is running up against a tight deadline: the start of next month’s General Assembly session. Advocates for public school students are pushing the commission to finish by Jan. 9.

  • That $4.4 billion isn’t quite so big a number as it seems. First, it refers to a projected increase in annual spending a decade from now compared to what we’re currently spending. That’s different from saying this plan would have us spend $4.4 billion more than we otherwise would in 2029 or 2030. Even if we do nothing to our education funding formulas, we would be spending substantially more then than we do now because of the growth in enrollment and inflation. The state portion of K-12 education spending is about $1.2 billion more than it was a decade ago for those reasons. And that brings us to a second point: That $4.4 billion would be split in some manner between the state and the counties. In rough figures, we now spend about $15 billion a year on public schools when state and county funds are added together; to think we would spend 30 percent more a decade from now is not shocking. State general fund revenues have increased by nearly 40 percent in the last decade. Finally, consultants for the commission concluded a year ago that Maryland was already shorting its schools by $2.9 billion a year based on our old, 2002 conception of adequacy. Put all that together and you can see why some members of the commission said they were surprised the total figure wasn’t higher than it is.

A commission looking at overhauling Maryland's school systems heard far-reaching recommendations Thursday that it call for boldly expanding early childhood education and overhauling the way teachers are paid.

  • The commission’s job was to determine what it would take to transform Maryland’s education system into one that produces graduates who can compete with the best in the world. We don’t do that now, and fixing that isn’t just about the dollars we spend. The commission studied high-performing systems and found differences around early childhood education; teacher training and professional development; the emphasis on career preparation; accountability and standards; and more. If we turn this into an argument that’s just about how much more we spend, we’re missing the point. The flip side is this: The commission’s job isn’t to produce a recommendation that will sail through the legislature; it’s to tell us what it would take to meet the state constitution’s requirement that the legislature adopt an adequate system of free public education. The commission needs to have the courage to do that and let the politicians decide what to do about it.

A new accountability system assigns each public school in Maryland a rating of between one and five stars.

  • We can’t get sidetracked by stargazing. The first-ever comprehensive ratings of Maryland’s schools released this month by the state education department were generous on the high end of the scale. Nearly 60 percent of schools rated four or five stars out of a possible five, and there were more five-star schools than one- and two-star schools put together. It would be tempting — particularly if you’re from someplace like Howard, Montgomery or Carroll counties — to conclude that Maryland’s schools don’t need fixing and that the only problem is Baltimore City, which is home to more than twice as many one-star schools as the rest of the state put together. But the commission’s research on this point is clear: By international standards, Maryland’s schools, even the good ones, are mediocre. And although Baltimore is challenged by concentrated poverty like no other jurisdiction in the state, there are thousands of students with unmet needs — whether because they have a learning disability, limited English proficiency or some other challenge — even in counties with the “best” schools. If we allow this to become a Baltimore vs. the rest of Maryland debate, children will be shortchanged all across Maryland.

Gov. Larry Hogan does, in fact, hold the record for most education spending by a Maryland governor. But the issue is complicated.

  • This is a moment of truth for Gov. Larry Hogan. The Republican won re-election in large part by running on his record in education, but he hasn’t said much about the Kirwan findings. He sent a letter to the House speaker and Senate president recently reiterating his demand for more accountability for the state’s schools, both in terms of his call for a state inspector general to root out waste, fraud and abuse and of his insistence that any enhanced funding for schools is spent in the most effective ways. In principle, we’re with him on that. But we also believe a governor’s leadership will be essential if this process is going to achieve its potential. He needs to be a champion for the funding and for the broader reconception of public education that the Kirwan Commission is contemplating. Mr. Hogan and the legislature have accomplished quite a bit during the last four years by letting the General Assembly take the lead on various policy issues, but this is not one of those times. Mr. Hogan could take the opportunity to score points with his political base by complaining about big-spending Democrats, or he could earn credit for a policy that sets Maryland on a path to greater equality and prosperity. His choice.