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Alvin Thornton: Maryland lawmakers should learn from my education plan and fully fund Kirwan | COMMENTARY

Alvin Thornton chaired Maryland’s Thornton Commission, which recommended broad educational changes nearly two decades ago. Mr. Thornton said his plan was never adequately funded.
Alvin Thornton chaired Maryland’s Thornton Commission, which recommended broad educational changes nearly two decades ago. Mr. Thornton said his plan was never adequately funded.(handout)

I am watching closely as state and local lawmakers and a broad cross-section of residents voice their strong support for the Kirwan Commission’s landmark education reform package, the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future.

Last year, the General Assembly overwhelmingly approved the first phase of the Kirwan Commission’s recommendations, recognizing that our education system needs more support and improvement. The Kirwan Commission recommended a system of changes in education practice, adequate and more equitable funding and operational accountability that will improve outcomes for all of Maryland’s children, especially those who have been ill-served for generations.

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The commission’s recommended reforms are comprehensive and urgently needed. They include early childhood education and affordable childcare for all low-income 3-year-old children, dramatically expanded investments for students who need them the most, elevated status for teachers, modern career and college pathways for all high school students and building a new more effective accountability system with the power to hold school systems responsible for implementing proven practices.

Now the challenge before state and local leaders is to act decisively and approve the entire Kirwan Blueprint education reform plan and ensure that it is adequately and equitably funded with a progressive funding formula and a strong accountability system at the same time. Passing the Kirwan plan without adequate funding would be a failure of leadership and a painful repetition of the decision not to fully fund another education plan, the Thornton Commission recommendations, nearly two decades ago. We can change history if we can learn from it.

I chaired the last commission, the 2002 Commission on Education Finance Equity and Excellence, that developed a visionary plan, Thornton Bridge to Excellence, to strengthen our public schools. With broad bipartisan, statewide support, it required a major new investment of state funds over many years. After several years of full implementation of the plan, there were significant improvements in student and district performance. But in the wake of the economic recession from 2008 to 2013, funding for the Bridge to Excellence statute was substantially reduced. Our failure to fully fund Thornton contributed to a decline in public education performance in Maryland.

We cannot thrive as a state with only 40% of high school graduates deemed “college and career ready” by current standards. We should not tolerate a system in which our schools fail to adequately prepare many young people of color and children from disadvantaged communities to achieve their educational and career aspirations and become productive citizens. The very foundation of our democracy and the essence of our state are at stake.

Creating an education system that effectively prepares all our children for tomorrow’s transformed global economy will require a comprehensive investment. What we have currently is nothing short of a bifurcated education system built on inequity that, if not systemically transformed, will continue to churn out graduates with a coin-flip’s chance of future success. Given the stakes, we have no choice but to make the investment recommended by the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future proposal.

I urge the General Assembly and Governor Larry Hogan to act decisively this year to generate the revenue to achieve the Kirwan vision. There are ways to do it by making sure all Marylanders, including the wealthiest among us and national and global corporations, pay their fair share without adding new tax obligations to low and middle-income Marylanders. There is public support for this response. Polls show that Marylanders overwhelmingly support increased funding for pre-k to 12 education, and are willing to pay a bit more to fund equitable, smart and accountable improvements to schools.

The Kirwan Commission inherited the legacy of the 2002 Thornton Commission and has the promise to substantially improve the education of Maryland’s children. The late Congressman Elijah Cummings reminded us that “Our children are our gifts to the future we will never see.” We have an obligation to prepare them well and equally for the future they will inherit.

To pass this new plan, our leaders must educate the public about the educational needs of our children and the consequences of not meeting them, align the academic performance expectations of our children with what we are willing to invest in their education, de-politicize our discussions about education funding and foster strong collaborations between the governor, legislators, local governments and civic leaders.

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This is a once in a generation opportunity — one we must seize. There is momentum to act now and make Kirwan a reality. We will all pay for failing to do so.

Alvin Thornton (athornton1115@comcast.net) chaired Maryland’s Commission on Education Finance Equity and Excellence (Thornton Commission) whose recommendations resulted in Maryland’s 2002 Bridge to Excellence statute. He is chair of the Prince George’s County Board of Education and was a faculty member at Howard University for 38 years.

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