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Maryland spends plenty of money on education and Kirwan plan to spend more is the wrong strategy | COMMENTARY

Recommendations by the Kirwan Commission to improve education in Maryland has sparked a debate over whether spending billions of dollars will better prepare students for the future.
Recommendations by the Kirwan Commission to improve education in Maryland has sparked a debate over whether spending billions of dollars will better prepare students for the future.

When you’re peddling snake oil, the sales pitch is likely to involve a little misdirection if not outright disinformation. So it is with the latest bad medicine for what ails Maryland’s schools, popularly known as the Kirwan Commission plan.

Consider the marketing strategy of a leading Kirwan pitchman, rookie state Senate President Bill Ferguson. Now that local officials and taxpayers are paying attention to Kirwan’s crushing costs — $32 billion over 10 years, by the commission’s own optimistic estimates — they’re getting cold feet.

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So Mr. Ferguson’s advice is to “focus on those first four years. …When you build a house, you don’t start with picking the paint color. You build a foundation, right?”

Which sounds like something a predatory lender might have said to a gullible mortgage applicant during the housing bubble. In effect, “pay no attention to that balloon payment you can’t afford in year five — let’s get you moved in. Hey, maybe you’ll hit the lottery before we foreclose!”

It is, in short, the height of fiscal irresponsibility to mandate billions worth of teacher pay raises, staffing increases and related pension obligations and focus only on the near term. That myopic approach will stress even affluent jurisdictions over time — and push poorer ones to the financial brink.

Baltimore’s property tax base, for example, is shrinking in real, inflation-adjusted terms. While the assessed value of real property has grown 12% over the last decade, consumer prices have risen faster, at 18%. Factor in a declining population (and therefore fewer payers of piggy-back income taxes), and the city’s ultimate $330 million annual bill to comply with Kirwan mandates is likely to crowd out other key spending priorities or break the bank sooner rather than later.

And then we have the glossy rhetoric about Kirwan’s promised benefits. Mr. Ferguson is fond of saying that this is a “once in a generation moment to do something truly meaningful to set the next generations up for success in a globalized world,” and that the “cost of doing nothing is so astronomical, it is unbearable for the state.”

But the alternative to doing an unwise thing is not “doing nothing” — it is doing something better and more effective.

Unfortunately, the Kirwan Commission went in the wrong direction on school reform because it bought into a false narrative: that Maryland under-invests in education and that its spending is inequitable.

In 2017 (the latest year for which nationwide data are available), Maryland spent 22% more (on a per-pupil basis) and paid its teachers 28% more than the national average; the state increased per-pupil spending 9% between 2012 and 2017. Maryland’s two majority-minority districts — Baltimore City and Prince George’s County — respectively spend 10% and 5% more than the state per-pupil average. In poor Baltimore, 78 cents of every education dollar spent comes from federal and state subsidies.

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Our problem is not the size of our investment in public schools but the low rate of return on that investment. Why? We got a clue when the latest test scores in “the Nation’s Report Card” arrived. Baltimore’s grades were particularly disappointing, so its schools superintendent said she would send a delegation to study “best practices” in Washington, D.C., where scores improved in three of four categories.

She will learn that the District has nearly as many students enrolled in charter schools as in regular public schools, and roughly double the number in the entire state of Maryland. Charters, of course, must compete for enrollments or fold up shop. In every field, competition is a best practice; where it is encouraged, everyone steps up their game.

Kirwan, however, left that key element out of the plan. As one commission member noted, this “disempowers parents, punishes schools of choice, creates inequity between counties, and confines the principals of district schools to administrative matters rather than functioning as true executives.”

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In consequence, the commission’s medicine will fail to significantly improve the health of our educational system while imposing enormous budget burdens. Let’s hope the majority of our elected leaders say “no sale.”

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Stephen J.K. Walters (email swalters@loyola.edu) is the author of Boom Towns: Restoring the Urban American Dream and chief economist at the Maryland Public Policy Institute.

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