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Why aren't Md. parents talking about the Kirwan Commission?

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)

After a visit to The Sun’s editorial board last week from William E. “Brit” Kirwan, chairman of the Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education, I turned to Facebook to see what parents were saying about the group and its recent recommendations to reform the state’s education system.

The search returned posts from non-profits, education advocates and politicians, but not a single personal post popped up — not even on the page of the local moms’ group I’m in, which has more than 2,300 members.

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I was shocked — first by the apparent lack of lay interest in what is arguably the most important issue in Maryland, and then by the recognition of my own naiveté.

The Kirwan Commission, as its popularly known, was formed in 2016 with the charge of revamping Maryland education, specifically: to “provide recommendations on preparing students in the State to meet the challenges of a changing global economy, to meet the State’s workforce needs, to be prepared for postsecondary education and the workforce, and to be successful citizens in the 21st century.”

I welcomed the development at the time, both for professional and personal reasons. The Sun’s editorial board has long advocated for fresh plans, policies and resources dedicated to providing a more equitable education for state students — particularly those in Baltimore who face challenges atypical in other districts. And my own daughter was still in day care then, which left several years for the commission to return its recommendations (originally due in December 2017) and the state to begin the work of restoring its education reputation, once among the best in the country, before she was too far into her formal schooling.

The need was great — and urgent. While Maryland generally lands near the top of national education rankings, that status discounts an important fact: The U.S. is not so hot at education anymore. In the latest Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) results, we ranked 40th in math, 25th in science and 24th in reading out of 73 countries, hardly something to crow about.

It also hides the reality that our system is failing thousands of kids every day. When he was here, Mr. Kirwan, a former chancellor of the University System of Maryland, handed out copies of a PowerPoint presentation with some of the worst facts:

  • Less than 40 percent of Maryland’s students are “college and career ready” at graduation;
  • More than half of the state’s black students attend substantially underfunded schools, while only 8 percent of white students do;
  • Large achievement gaps based on race, income and disability persist;
  • And teachers are underpaid and unhappy: 47 percent of them will leave the profession at the end of their second year.

His commission came out with its report in January — 13 months late — recommending a roughly 30 percent increase in education funding over the next 10 years to pay for: expanded access to public pre-K; raising licensing requirements, professional opportunities, salaries and profiles of teachers; overhauling the instructional system to prepare students for college or career by 10th grade; adding resources to the schools most in need; and implementing a strong system of accountability.

And now Mr. Kirwan is on a state tour of sorts, trying to drum up support for the plan and a piddling pile of money to get it started — even though commissioners have not yet agreed upon a new funding formula for education.

Meanwhile, my daughter is in the second half of her first grade year. If approved and funded, she’ll be half-way through high school by the time Kirwan recommendations are fully implemented. That’s been a bitter pill to swallow — as has been the realization that this is not really about excellence at its core, but about fixing the mistakes of the last education commission, which woefully miscalculated school funding needs, allowing gaps to flourish.

None of that means the recommendations aren’t critical to the state’s future and the futures of thousands of kids who otherwise are being left behind.

Mr. Kirwan is selling his commission’s work as a legacy and state competitiveness issue, which is working on some lawmakers. Maryland’s congressional delegation this week indicated that reform is critical, with Sen. Chris Van Hollen, a Democrat, saying that implementing the Kirwan recommendations should be the “No. 1 priority.” The governor, on the other hand, is more focused on school construction than instruction.

When I asked Mr. Kirwan what he tells parents to get their support, he said, essentially, that he doesn’t. He gave me a little pat on the way out and said it was a good question, he’ll have to think about it.

So of course parents aren’t talking about it; no one is talking to them about it. That’s a mistake, because while our kids may not benefit as much or as immediately as we’d like, we know better than anyone else what’s at stake, and we’re very good at nagging.

My initial expectations as a parent were perhaps a little unrealistic regarding the timeline of the commission, but that doesn’t mean I’m not eager for improvement, however incremental — nor so callous as to not care about the kids who will come after mine.

I expect many parents feel similarly. And to them, I say: consider this your talk.

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Tricia Bishop is The Sun's deputy editorial page editor. Her column runs every other Friday. Her email is tricia.bishop@baltsun.com; Twitter: @triciabishop.

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