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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 the leader of Maryland’s largest private sector employer — with a mission to provide education and health care — I know from experience that our state’s future rests on the quality and equity of our pre-K-12 public education system. This is why it is imperative for the state to move forward with the recommendations of the Maryland Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education (known as the Kirwan Commission) to substantially improve the educational outlook for this state.

Johns Hopkins entities employ more than 57,000 Marylanders, including nearly 40,000 in Baltimore City. Thousands of the jobs we have created here over the past several years are precisely the kind that so many in our communities call for: quality work with wages and benefits that sustain families and chart careers. But for this progress to continue at Johns Hopkins and other employers across Maryland, our state cannot accept anything less than the high-caliber public schools our children and communities deserve.

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Maryland's congressional delegation has voiced strong support for a sweeping plan to reform the state's educational system put forth by the Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education, chaired by William E. "Brit" Kirwan, former president of the University of Maryland, College Park.

Today, despite the hard work of so many educators, our schools are not making the grade. Maryland performs in the middle of the pack on the National Assessment of Education Progress, and the U.S. is falling behind many other countries. Fewer than 40 percent of Maryland high school graduates are assessed as “college and career ready,” meaning the majority will struggle to further their education or land good jobs. Maryland also lags behind inexcusably in educating young people from low-income families, children of color, students with disabilities and those learning English as a second language.

Why? Because Maryland is not funding our public schools adequately or equitably: 20 of our 24 school systems are currently underfunded by a total of $2.9 billion, based on the state’s own calculations. Baltimore City’s school system is underfunded by an appalling $290 million annually, which falls hardest on minority students. Statewide, 53 percent of Maryland’s African-American students attend school in an underfunded district, compared with only 8 percent of white students.

William "Brit" Kirwan says the work of the education commission that bears his name may be the most meaningful of his many years in education.

The research evidence is clear that concentrated poverty, inadequate access to health care and exposure to violence hold too many students back. If we want all our children to succeed, these factors must be addressed through comprehensive in-school supports — from counselors and social workers to on-site health screenings. Johns Hopkins has seen the enormous impact of these types of interventions in its partnership with Baltimore City Public Schools on vision services. The Kirwan report more directly and fully accounts for the challenges of poverty and instability than has been done in Maryland’s educational formulas in the past.

Increased funding is critical to school success, but so is how those funds are spent. Maryland has too often failed to adopt education practices with a proven record of raising student achievement and as a result, in many schools, funds are not having the desired impact. Even Maryland’s better-resourced students are greatly underperforming their international peers.

Democratic leaders in Maryland’s General Assembly have introduced legislation to boost funding of the state's public schools by hundreds of millions of dollars to pay for ambitious education proposals. The so-called "Blueprint for Maryland's Future" would provide more than $1 billion.

Now there is a roadmap for change. The Kirwan Commission has comprehensively analyzed the state’s public education challenge, identified the best practices in the country and the world and produced a comprehensive plan of action focused on five areas to spur lasting change: early childhood education, elevation of the teaching profession, raising learning standards, meaningful student support services and a new oversight board to ensure reforms are achieving promised goals.

The General Assembly and governor should act decisively this year by enacting the Kirwan Commission’s policy recommendations and making a down payment on the cost of implementation — with a mandate that the state pay its share to implement the recommendations fully in the following years.

The Kirwan Commission gives our state a once-a-generation chance to reboot our public-education system and align it with the 21st century economy. We cannot afford not to make this essential investment in our kids.

Ronald J. Daniels (president@jhu.edu) is the president of Johns Hopkins University.

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