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Md. leaders have a moral responsibility to fund Kirwan

Legislators speak at a press conference announcing plans for expanding education through the Kirwan commission plan in Annapolis.

I started to write an article to scrutinize the claim by Republican Gov. Larry Hogan and others that the Kirwan Commission price tag — an additional $3.8 billion in spending on public schools over the next 10 years — is unaffordable. But I quickly realized that affordability is a factual no-brainer (I’ll explain later).

The real issue is whether our elected officials and we the voters have the political will to do what is educationally necessary and morally right. Right now, based on the most valid national tests, a shocking 60% of Maryland schoolchildren are below proficiency in reading.

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As to affordability, let’s first put the price tag in perspective. As whopping as it sounds, a $3.8 billion increase through 2030 is only about an increase of about 2.5% more each year in current state and local spending for public schools. And it would increase state and local spending for all government purposes by about one-half of 1% per year, which in no way is an unreasonable investment in what state officials claim as their highest priority.

Second, the Maryland Center on Economic Policy has documented numerous paths for additional revenue, starting with making Maryland’s current tax system fairer. The wealthiest Marylanders pay a smaller share of their income in state and local taxes than the rest of Maryland taxpayers. And we can close numerous lucrative loopholes that benefit big businesses and wealthy individuals.

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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)

Further, other tax measures could substantially boost revenues. Among those frequently proposed: sports betting, legalization of recreational marijuana, extending the sales tax to uncovered goods and services (with an expanded working family tax credit to offset the impact), and restoring the millionaire estate tax.

The business community has little to fear that Maryland will lose ground in economic competition with neighboring states. Maryland now ranks No. 1 in the nation in median household income. Yet, we are 31st among states in the percentage of Gross Domestic Product spent on K-12 education. The business community should actually be leading the crusade for school reform to upgrade the workforce, as happened in Massachusetts and elsewhere.

It’s also apparent that while the ill-informed opposition of Governor Hogan is in a class by itself, others, in addition to the business community, have hardly been profiles in courage. Some candidates in the 2018 election went out of their way to avoid mentioning the cost of school reform, fearing visibility on the issue would harm their chances for election.

All candidates for governor and other offices could have taken a different approach. They could have proclaimed forthrightly that the right to an adequate education is such a basic civil right that paying for it, and Governor Hogan’s resistance to it, should be confronted head on and taken to the voters.

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No doubt, such an approach is more difficult for elected officials and taxpayers in the wealthier counties. Even liberals in wealthy and populous counties are put to the test. Bluntly put, state school funding is, and would continue under the Kirwan recommendations, to be highly redistributive. High-income taxpayers clustered in some counties would be paying disproportionately for adequate schooling for low-income children clustered in the city and poorer counties.

But isn’t that what government is supposed to do? To remedy wrongs and fulfill basic civil rights like the right to an adequate and equitable public education. Remember: that right is found in the Maryland constitution. And it should be honored not just because it’s a constitutional imperative. It’s also in our state’s economic and social self-interest and, above all, a moral duty.

Jon Meacham’s stirring book “The Soul of America” recounts how civil rights have never been enacted in our country without political courage and moral strength by elected officials and the citizenry. Will we in Maryland now stand up for the civil right to education or yield to political obstacles?

A current Kirwan workgroup and later the full Commission (on which I serve) will have the chance this fall to offer revenue options for full debate by the General Assembly and governor. Let’s make sure our elected officials know that, as polls show, voters – whatever their income, wherever they live – support adequate educational opportunity for all. A few county executives, most notably Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr., have begun to show the way.

Justice delayed is justice denied. The better angels of our nature are ready to rise to the challenge.

Kalman R. Hettleman, a member of the Kirwan Commission, is the author of “Mislabeled as Disabled: The Educational Abuse of Struggling Learners and How WE Can Fight It” (Radius Book Group). He can be reached at khettleman@gmail.com.

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