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The elephant in the room in the clamor over the recommendations of the Maryland Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education, known as the Kirwan Commission, is the imperative of accountability. So far, Gov. Larry Hogan and the General Assembly have done far too little to assure taxpayers that the proposed increase in school funding of about $4 billion over 10 years will be spent effectively and efficiently.

Taxpayers and political officials have reason to be skeptical that school systems will be held sufficiently accountable. The prior massive infusion of education funding under the Thornton legislation in 2002 produced some gains in student achievement but was not spent nearly as effectively as it should have been. It is widely recognized that the Maryland State Department of Education (MSDE) dropped the ball in implementation of the Thornton funding and has been constantly lax — mainly because of lack of staff capacity and political resistance from local school systems — in requiring research-based academic programs and monitoring their effectiveness in the classroom.

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MSDE’s weak record led the Kirwan Commission to make an extraordinary recommendation for an independent oversight board. MSDE objected, fearing its authority would be usurped. Yet, the oversight board, if it functioned as intended, would actually strengthen, not impede, MSDE in its governing role. Local departments of education also tended to oppose the oversight board — a clear sign that MSDE was not vigorously exercising its duty to guide and monitor their spending.

The Blueprint for Maryland’s Future bill, enacted in Annapolis this year, supported in principle the commission’s policy recommendations for more funding. But the Blueprint not only didn’t put up a significant down-payment on the funding, it largely skirted the issue of accountability.

The bill incorporates two mechanisms that promise more accountability than they can deliver. The first provides for performance evaluations of local school systems by the new Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability in the Department of Legislative Services under the General Assembly’s Joint Audit Committee. But that proviso doesn’t say how or when, or even exactly what, the office will actually do. The legislature may want such evaluations, but the plain reality is that the office appears to have little staff capacity, specialized knowledge or authority to ensure the implementation standards and oversight built into the proposed oversight board.

As to MSDE itself, the Department of Legislative Audits examines it regularly. Yet, these audits have historically been more about fiscal compliance and less, if at all, about the accountability commission members envisioned by the oversight board.

A second Blueprint provision incorporates the so-called accountability proposal advanced by Gov. Hogan. But it focuses on corruption and criminal conduct, not student academic achievement and the effectiveness of school spending.

Do these stark flaws in the Blueprint mean that meaningful accountability is a lost cause? Will taxpayers and political officials continue to have reason to be skeptical, and will schoolchildren continue to be deprived of the most research-based and cost-effective school programs?

Not necessarily. The Kirwan Commission in its concluding deliberations now through December can try again to lead the way toward true accountability.

For one thing, the commission can strongly urge the General Assembly to add the oversight board to the Blueprint. It is encouraging that the Senate President, then, will be Sen. Bill Ferguson, a commission member, and the House Speaker now is Adrienne Jones, a former commission member. Both are stalwart supporters of adequate funding and accountability.

At the same time, the commission should ask MSDE for detailed information on the steps it has already taken to assure effective implementation of the “down-payment” programs funded this year and in 2018. In opposing the oversight board, MSDE promised that it would strengthen its own accountability efforts. It would, supposedly, provide more guidance, technical assistance, data collection and analysis and, especially, monitoring.

Has it? From all appearances, including my own unsuccessful efforts to gain relevant information from MSDE, the answer seems to be no. The commission should push to find out more. MSDE’s substandard performance, if that turns out to be the case, would boost support for enactment of the oversight board.

All the while, ardent Kirwan supporters should lobby for more accountability as well as more money. Student success and political support for the funding depend on it.

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

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