The state's Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education, which will be chaired by former University of Maryland System Chancellor Brit Kirwan, is expected to begin its work this fall. This important development presents an opportunity for Marylanders to engage in meaningful conversation about our school funding formula and to leverage creative ideas for investing in our state's children to prepare them for a rapidly changing future.

The Bridge to Excellence formula has been in place since 2002 and has led to historic levels of funding in our public schools. That investment has paid off: Graduation rates are at an all-time high of 87 percent. So, while members of the Kirwan Commission, as it has come to be known, must hold their ground amid skeptics who believe that money doesn't matter in education, they must also build on our investments and insist that our schools can be better.

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We need a statewide funding model that incentivizes the redesign of our schools and develops the most innovative and forward-thinking school system in the country. A successful formula should focus not just on graduation rates and test scores but on five core values that serve as a framework to improve our human condition, bring us together and help our children interact in schools that are as diverse and promising as the world in which we live.

First, our funding model must reward schools and districts for innovating to increase socioeconomic diversity, which strengthens the quality of learning for all. We must work collaboratively — recognizing that education continues beyond the schoolhouse door and across traditional jurisdictional lines — to implement programs and services that are demonstrated to work best for kids. We need to allow for more flexibility between local governments and school boards so they can work together to educate the whole child. By creating school communities with greater socioeconomic diversity, Maryland will give all children the opportunity to learn as much from each other as they do from their educators.

Second, we must fully fund public and highly effective pre-Kindergarten for all Maryland 4-year-olds. Research shows that kids who attend pre-K are better prepared for school, better readers, less likely to drop out and more likely to graduate. At a time when the first year tuition at Maryland's public universities is on average 9 percent cheaper than one year of early-age child care, young Maryland families are struggling to make ends meet. Universal public pre-K is an investment that saves our state money in the long run and keeps more money in the pockets of Maryland families while better preparing our children to thrive.

Third, our funding formula must be predictable, transparent and efficient. We have to give districts the information they need to prepare for long-term investments in their schools and educators. Every Maryland family knows how hard it is to plan a household budget without being able to predict income. We must not create uncertainty if we expect local education systems to design and sustain innovative opportunities for every student in their communities.

Fourth, we need to more accurately calculate the wealth and poverty of local jurisdictions, and be realistic about the increased funding that is necessary in low-income communities, where our schools must address the additional challenges that kids growing up in poverty face. We can't simply look at property values on paper to determine jurisdictional needs, and we shouldn't punish lower-income communities for incentivizing development. As we work toward eliminating concentrations of poverty that are too common in Maryland's communities, we must now invest more heavily and comprehensively in schools serving our highest-need neighborhoods. Ultimately, we need a formula that factors in a jurisdiction's real wealth and actual funding capacity to most appropriately equip high-need schools with resources at greater levels to ensure all children can realize their potentials.

Fifth, as the Hogan administration's unnecessary withholding of Geographic Cost of Education Index (GCEI) funds from Maryland schools revealed, our new funding formula must include a rational mechanism for accountability that doesn't jeopardize future students. Fiscal responsibility and school system effectiveness are important, but I firmly believe that withholding critical funds as punishment for decisions made by adults only serves to unjustly punish our state's students.

The conversation on school funding presents the greatest opportunity for meaningful school reform in Maryland in over a decade. It will take collective action across our state to create sustainable change for our students. You can add your voice and ideas on how we can improve our schools here: billforbaltimore.com/school_funding.

With so much at stake, how can we afford to remain silent?

Senator Bill Ferguson is a Democrat representing Baltimore City in the Maryland General Assembly; his e-mail is bill@billforbaltimore.com.

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