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Maryland legislators adjust for reality in Kirwan costs | COMMENTARY

It’s no secret that the jurisdictions with the greatest need for public education improvement in Maryland are the least likely to be able to afford their shares of the tab, especially in Baltimore City and Prince George’s County, which face staggering price tags.

Those two districts are expected to pay, respectively, $2.2 billion and $1.8 billion more than they do already in education funding over the next nine fiscal years, if the Kirwan Commission reform recommendations are phased in as proposed, according to a General Assembly fiscal analysis. Meanwhile, the same analysis shows that a half dozen other counties — including Carroll and Howard in the Baltimore region — won’t have to pay a single penny extra to meet the new education requirements.

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That’s why we were glad to see the conversation shift in the legislature last week regarding the cost of all this projected “innovation and excellence in education.” After months of focusing on the $4 billion estimated, annual, statewide cost of Kirwan at full implementation in Fiscal Year 2030, lawmakers got down to basics: the realistic responsibility each district can bear, balanced with the state’s share, and how that should be determined.

There is simply no way Baltimore and Prince George’s County, which consistently rank in the bottom on state academic assessment tests, can afford to pay for the restructuring needed to ensure their students have educational opportunities on par with those in the rest of the state. They’re starting from too far behind, and the cost to catch up is impossible to meet, short of, as Prince George’s County Executive Angela Alsobrooks put it, “defunding” their police departments.

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Democratic Dels. Ben Barnes and Alonzo Washington, each chairs of education subcommittees in the House and each representing Prince George’s County, have thus proposed amending funding formulas to account for a “maximum local effort index.” It would divide a jurisdiction’s proposed share by a figure representing the district’s wealth — or lack thereof — in determining how much it should spend. The state would be required to make up the difference. For both Baltimore City and Prince George’s, such an index would roughly cut their Kirwan costs in half, but other counties would also see a decrease with this amendment and several others that were introduced, including Caroline and Baltimore counties.

“It achieves what the commission set out from the beginning,” Del. Washington said, “to ensure there is parity across the board.”

Of course, both Prince George’s and Baltimore City are at least partly to blame for their predicaments. While public schools in their districts have indeed chronically been underfunded by the state for years, each system has also produced a disturbing number of mismanagement scandals — from Prince George’s grade-fixing scheme to Baltimore’s underheated classrooms.

The victims of all of this are the children in these districts, who deserve the same opportunities as everyone else and a fair shot to reach their dreams, which means more help. Well-to-do families in both districts often put their kids in private schools or particular charters, leaving the traditional public schools with a higher percentage of kids with more specialized needs. Many of them are struggling with concentrated urban challenges their peers don’t have, including language barriers, poverty, hunger, instability and community violence.

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To truly “transform Maryland’s … education system to the levels of high-performing systems around the world” and produce “equitable learning outcomes regardless of a student’s family income, race, ethnicity, disability, or other characteristics” — as the 172-page Blueprint for Maryland’s Future bill says it wants to do — we must face reality and account for inequity, regardless of who’s fault it is that it exists, if anyone’s.

There are only so many options for local governments to raise revenue, and districts with ailing schools face stunted economic growth. Baltimore City already charges the maximum local income tax and has the highest property tax in the state. Mayor Jack Young has asked all city agencies to plan to reduce their budgets 5% by 2022, which is absolutely appropriate, but there is no city well of wealth from which to draw. The state has many more options to spread and bear the burden of payment. It’s time Maryland take responsibility for the success of children in Baltimore City and Prince George’s County, along with those in high-performing Howard and Montgomery.

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