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A hole in the Kirwan Commission recommendations

William E. "Brit" Kirwan, chair of the Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education, explains the Kirwan Commissions recommendations for Maryland's public schools. (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore Sun video)

As one of its members, I am proud to support the report of the Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education (the Kirwan Commission). Its overall recommendations are big, bold and commendable. But it has one shortcoming that I believe should be further understood and addressed.

This shortcoming was almost inevitable given the contentious politics of K-12 policy and funding reform. From day one, the commission has struggled to reconcile our legal mandate to recommend “adequacy” in funding with the realpolitik of “affordability.” Commissioners, one and all, have made compromises to try to achieve the right balance. Still, I believe that in our recommendations so far, true adequacy has been compromised.

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The commission has openly cited affordability as a reason for limiting policy recommendations and slowing down their phase-in. This reflects the reality of the current political environment in Maryland in which we are up against limited revenues and limited prospects for tax increases to pay for full adequacy.

Moreover, there is another political dynamic that affects the balance between adequacy and affordability that is less visible and understood: It is the extent to which the commission’s big and bold vision for the future — as commendable as it is — has minimized the need for adequate instructional interventions for struggling learners in the here and now. The commission report, in my view, underestimates the extent to which such interventions will be necessary during the decade or more that will it will take to fully implement the commission’s far-reaching vision and plan.

We don’t in fact know if all of the vision and plan will come to pass: if it will be enacted into law, adequately funded, well implemented and achieve the intended outcomes. We are right to aspire to realize the vision, and we must do everything we can to ensure the necessary political action and educational accountability.

But, in reality, we know that not everything will go as desired. Yet, the commission report does not sufficiently take this uncertainty into account. It does not provide what could be called an “adequacy safety net” for students who will need it the most.

Most conspicuously, the commission’s recommendations provide little direct additional instructional assistance for the 60 percent of all Maryland students who are now below proficiency in reading and math and who are disproportionately poor and of color. The commission commendably recommends a transitional program for interventions for struggling readers in grades K-3; however, while this program is a major step forward, it is limited in time and not adequately funded based on the best available evidence.

Moreover, there is very little funding for instructional interventions for struggling learners in grades 4-12. The commission’s theory is that the whole big and bold package will virtually eliminate over time the need for targeted interventions for struggling learners in all grades. This, however, seems a leap of faith (and a way to cut cost estimates) that will place many students at great risk of failure.

One measure of the extent to which the report does not provide for full adequacy is the total of the commission’s estimated cost increases through FY 2030: $3.8 billion. This is a large sum but roughly only an annual increase of less than 3 percent per year above current pre-K-12 spending. Further the $3.8 billion increase pales in the light of the widely accepted adequacy gap of $2.9 billion that existed when the commission began work over two years ago.

I hope my concerns are not taken out of context. I want to underscore my admiration for my colleagues. Perhaps the report’s affordability perspective will turn out to be politically strategic and smart. But we have no way of knowing.

What we do know is affordability has played a significant role in our recommendations to date. Adequacy advocates in the community are considering legal action in response to what they regard as our less-than-adequate recommendations.

We also know that it will never be politically easy to obtain adequate educational opportunity for those who need it the most, especially children who are poor and of color. But the good news is that a new and all-out battle over adequacy has begun, and the commission has mightily advanced that cause.

Kalman R. Hettleman is a member of the Maryland Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education, and a former chairman of the Baltimore school board's budget committee. His email is khettleman@gmail.com.

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