Education status quo unacceptable in Maryland

Maryland’s education system is underperforming within a nation whose education system is not competitive internationally. Consider the following: In 2015, 64 percent of U.S. students in the 4th grade and 66 percent in the 8th grade were not proficient in reading, according to the National Assessment of Education Progress. In math, the numbers were similarly bad: 60 percent and 67 percent respectively. Maryland was the only state whose performance level declined on the NAEP in reading and mathematics in the 4th and 8th grades between 2013 and 2015.

In addition, the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) places the United States overall performance near the middle among countries in reading and science and near the bottom in mathematics — with a caveat. The richer the student, the higher they rank. Students in the top 10th of wealth are No. 1, and in the top quarter, they’re No. 3. It’s only when low income students are included, that the United States drops to the middle.


In other words, the U.S. effectively educates wealthier young people; we do a very poor job educating low-wealth students. Increasing concentration of poverty in Maryland public schools complicates the problem. Since the last comprehensive analysis of the funding needs of Maryland schools in 2002, the proportion of students eligible for free and reduced priced meals doubled from 22 percent to 44 percent. And 58 percent of Maryland’s schools have a student population characterized by concentrated poverty, which is defined as a school in which 40 percent or more of the students are eligible for free or reduced priced meals.

Concentrated poverty hits Baltimore City (96 percent of the schools) and Prince George’s County (81 percent) hard, as might be expected, but the challenge is pervasive throughout the state, including in Montgomery (43 percent), Anne Arundel (42 percent), Kent, Caroline and Somerset (100 percent), Wicomico (96 percent) and Allegheny (92 percent) counties and Baltimore County (65 percent).


Maryland spends 4.9 percent less money on students in low-wealth school districts than in wealthy ones. It is the 15th most regressive funding system in the nation. Maryland ranked 11th in per pupil spending in the United States in fiscal 2014 but dropped to 19th when adjusted for regional cost differences, despite Maryland’s median income being the highest in the nation.

The Thornton Commission, which one of us chaired, issued recommendations resulting in path-breaking legislation in 2002, establishing the principle of adequately and equitably funding public education. This benchmark legislation was eroded in 2008, resulting in public schools being underfunded by $1.6 billion in 2016, with 20 of the 24 Maryland school districts being underfunded as measured by the Thornton standard.

The recent Kirwan Commission, appointed in 2016 to determine what Maryland needs to do to produce a school system comparable to the best in the world, issued its Preliminary Recommendations in February, drawing on best practices in the United States and the highest performing countries internationally.

Its recommendations are systemic, comprehensive, evidence-based and call for adequate and equitable funding, guaranteed by the state, ensuring that Maryland’s children will graduate from high school: ready for college without remediation, possessing an industry recognized trade certificate and with the knowledge and skills necessary for active citizenship and an engaged life.

The recommendations make clear that what money is spent on is as important as how much money is spent. The recommendations will ensure:

  • Virtually all students are ready for kindergarten based on support from birth through age 5;
  • Highly effective teachers in every classroom;
  • On time graduation with students ready for job, college and citizenship;
  • The elimination of race, wealth, disability and language barriers;
  • And accountable, well governed state and local education systems.

Neither our children nor the absence of instructional know-how is the problem. The barrier to success has been the absence of political resolve and public will to do what we know will work.

We call on gubernatorial candidates to make an explicit commitment to the vision of the Thornton Commission and to support legislation in 2019 that translates the Kirwan recommendations into policy. We also call on citizens to support only candidates for public office this year who support legislation in 2019 that includes the Kirwan Commission’s recommendations.

The status quo is unacceptable. The Kirwan Commission delivered a blueprint to change public education practice and funding in Maryland so that outcomes for our children compare to the best systems in the world. Our economic system, personal safety, basic health and day-to-day quality of life depend on equitable educational high achievement for all children.


David Hornbeck ( is co-founder of Strong Schools Maryland, a former Maryland state superintendent of schools and former superintendent of the School District of Philadelphia. Alvin Thornton( is a former Political Science Department chair, associate provost and senior advisor to the president of Howard University; he was the chair of the 2002 Thornton Commission.