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Teachers Corey Gaber, left, and Jamie Parrish, right, were among the supporters of the Kirwan Commission education plan who dressed satirically as millionaires for a protest outside Live! Casino and Hotel where Gov. Larry Hogan was holding a "dark money" fundraiser to fight against spending for the plan.
Teachers Corey Gaber, left, and Jamie Parrish, right, were among the supporters of the Kirwan Commission education plan who dressed satirically as millionaires for a protest outside Live! Casino and Hotel where Gov. Larry Hogan was holding a "dark money" fundraiser to fight against spending for the plan. (Amy Davis / Baltimore Sun)

Throughout a three-year rigorous and transparent process, the expert and bipartisan members of the Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education, or the Kirwan Commission as most people know it, laid bare how Maryland’s one-time competitive advantage in public education has been severely eroded. Declining results on national assessments are the most recent reminder of how far Maryland has fallen behind. The grave risk to the state’s competitiveness is underscored by the sobering fact that fewer than 40% of Maryland’s public high school graduates can read or perform math at college or career readiness levels.

In response, the commission produced actionable comprehensive recommendations to expand early childhood education, increase the supply of high quality and diverse teachers, improve college and career readiness, address achievement disparities and strengthen governance and accountability. If implemented, these recommendations should prepare every public school student for college or the workforce to successfully compete in the global economy. That such systemic reform will require significant new investment over time cannot be an excuse for inaction. We must act now to repair and reform a broken public education system that no longer meets Maryland’s economic needs or serves the interests of students.

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While there are simply no credible stakeholders disputing the need for systemic change in Maryland’s public education system, there is understandable anxiety over accommodating the estimated $4 billion annual cost. That is why the Kirwan Commission has proposed a 10-year phase-in period to responsibly implement and sustainably finance its interdependent recommendations. Such a measured approach is prudent given the concurrent needs to develop assessment and accountability measures to ensure effective implementation and to allow the state and local governments time to reprioritize their investments in public education to accommodate new costs.

These implementation and financial realities are already being reflected in a number of important ways. The state is moving forward with hiring an inspector general to investigate complaints of waste and fraud, and it created a new performance audit office to investigate local school systems. However, accountability cannot reside only at the local level. State leaders must be held accountable for meeting Maryland’s constitutional obligation to provide an adequate and equitable education to all public school students.

Without sacrificing any of its interdependent recommendations or extending the time period for their full implementation, the Kirwan Commission offered legislators and the governor a new funding formula that more evenly spreads implementation costs over the next decade. The proposed annual rate of growth of 5.6% can be accommodated utilizing approximately half of the state’s already projected general fund revenue growth over the same time frame. This represents a more than doubling of the average annual growth of 2.3% in new public education funding experienced over the past five years, a period when new investments have not even kept pace with the overall growth in the state budget.

Of course, local governments have a responsibility, too. Leaders in the Maryland General Assembly recognize the need to revisit what constitutes local contributions to public education and how quickly any required increase in contributions could be accommodated given wealth disparities. Based on how local governments are already prioritizing their investments, more than half of Maryland’s 24 local jurisdictions already regularly contribute at rates consistent with Kirwan Commission recommendations.

The state and local governments have taken tangible steps to prepare for this pivotal moment. The General Assembly’s 2019 “Blueprint for Maryland’s Future” set aside over $1 billion in new resources for the initial implementation of the Kirwan Commission’s recommendations over three years. This came on the heels of earlier state legislative action to provide additional grants to jurisdictions, including those with declining enrollments and full-day kindergarten for 4-year-olds, and local leaders’ commitments to increase their contributions to public education.

Marylanders are looking to our elected leaders to move the commission’s recommendations on both policy and funding into action. Providing for an adequate and equitable education for all of Maryland’s public school students is a constitutional requirement that should dominate the budgetary and legislative dialogue between the Maryland General Assembly and governor. After three years of building a “Bridge to Kirwan,” making a “down payment on Kirwan,” and sometimes misleading rhetoric regarding the affordability and thoroughness of the commission’s recommendations, it is well past time to hold the state’s leaders accountable for the adequacy of their action or the real costs of their inaction.

Monique Davis and Matthew D. Gallagher were members of the Kirwan Commission’s Blueprint for Maryland’s Future Funding Formula Workgroup. They can be reached at mwd10@gwu.edu and matt@goldsekerfoundation.org.

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