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Kirwan delay is unfortunate, but we can use the time well

Kirwan delay is unfortunate, but we can use the time well
William E. "Brit" Kirwan chairs the Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education. (Lloyd Fox / Baltimore Sun)

House Speaker Michael E. Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller may well be right that it’s already too late for the General Assembly to sort through the complex policy and fiscal issues presented by the Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education. The Kirwan Commission, as it is better known, has laid out a compelling vision for how we should reshape our K-12 (actually, make that pre-K-12) public schools in a way that will make our students competitive with any in the world. But getting 188 legislators to understand the sweeping changes that would entail, much less support them and the billions in increased spending they would require, is no small feat. That the commission, after two years of meetings, has not settled on formulas for how the costs would be apportioned between the state and local governments makes that task much harder, as does the fact that it’s the first year of a four-year term, meaning dozens of lawmakers are new and have no experience in the legislative process.

Messrs. Busch and Miller have asked the commission to form a small work group to settle the fiscal issues and report back in the fall. That means at least another year before the General Assembly can act on the full recommendations. Education advocates don’t like that, and neither do we. But we understand it. The last time Maryland engaged in a similar process, the Commission on Education Finance, Equity and Excellence (aka the Thornton Commission) took about three years between its conception and the adoption of legislation. That happened in the fourth year of a legislative term, and it proved to be fundamentally flawed in that legislators approved the spending without identifying a way to pay for it. We’re sure everyone involved would like to avoid a repeat of that mistake.

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Maryland gubernatorial candidates Ben Jealous and Gov. Larry Hogan Jr. discuss their views on the Kirwan Commission. (Algerina Perna/Baltimore Sun video)

One other salient fact: Back then, the governor, Parris Glendening, initially expressed concerns about the cost of the proposal given the economic slowdown at the time but supported the concept and eventually signed the legislation. Now, Gov. Larry Hogan has flatly said the state can’t afford Kirwan’s eventual pricetag of $4.4 billion a year (after a 10-year phase-in), and he has not engaged in any detailed discussion of the policy involved beyond insisting on accountability for state spending on schools. Passing something as ambitious as Kirwan will be hard; doing it without the strong support of the governor will be much tougher.

This development doesn’t have to mean that we make no progress this year. Here’s what needs to happen now:

  • First, legislators should not pass Governor Hogan’s proposal for enhanced school construction funding this year. We say this not because it’s necessarily a bad idea or because it’s a bargaining chip in partisan Annapolis warfare. Rather, Mr. Hogan’s proposal cannot be considered in isolation from the costs of Kirwan. We agree that parents and students should not be forced to choose between the quality of school buildings and the quality of the instruction that goes on inside them. But the reality is that we do not have unlimited resources, and we do need to make choices — whether that entails finding the right balance between capital and operating investments, cutting spending on other things or raising taxes. We cannot commit to a major infusion of school construction funding without a consensus about the trade-offs involved.
  • Second, we need to ensure that the “bridge to Kirwan” money the governor and legislature approved to allow Baltimore City schools to avoid devastating cuts while waiting for new, fairer funding formulas doesn’t run out because of this delay.
  • Third, lawmakers need to identify legislation that can be passed this year that will speed the implementation of Kirwan reforms if and when the General Assembly enacts them. There’s a lot that will need to be done in terms of planning and training on the local level to make Kirwan work, and at least part of that can start now. Furthermore, the commission has identified about $300 million in spending priorities for early childhood education and enhanced supports for schools that serve large numbers of poor children. That can be enacted this year. We also have enough details now to commit to the second year of the phase-in; legislators can mandate that round of additional spending (about $750 million) in advance of the governor’s fiscal 2021 budget.
  • Fourth, and most importantly, advocates need to build a grassroots campaign around Kirwan’s policy goals. We deeply regret that the commission’s work was not completed before the election so that candidates for legislature and governor could have put their commitment (or lack thereof) on the record for voters. Instead, candidates were able to get away with vague words of support for public education. We need to correct that by educating the public on the need for Kirwan reforms and the value we could gain from the accompanying investments. By the time Thornton passed, it became a litmus test for whether a politician truly supported public education. Kirwan needs to be the same.
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