Although the Kirwan Commission is to be applauded for many of its goals to improve the quality of education, it stops short of real reform. We can all agree that the system of education should provide all Maryland children the opportunity to reach their full potential, that the current system isn’t working and that something beyond spending must be done. Five of Maryland’s school districts are in the top 10 in the United States for spending per pupil of the 100 largest districts in the country. Baltimore public schools spend $15,168 for each student.
Gov. Larry Hogan has received criticism for his opposition to the tax increases that are necessary to implement the Kirwan Commission’s recommendations. But just spending more money is not the solution, particularly since the new program would cost an estimated $1,200 per Maryland taxpayer family annually. Therefore, a more careful examination of our current educational system is appropriate.
An ideal education system is one that is responsive to the needs of each child. We don’t have that today, particularly in Baltimore, where third grade reading levels and high school graduation rates are below the national average. What we need are the holistic changes that have driven dramatic improvements in outcomes elsewhere. For example, prior to Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans’ public school system was significantly underperforming. After Katrina’s devastation of the majority of school buildings, the community decided to literally start over. One thing they did was turn many of the schools into public charter schools. Now the school board’s overall metrics show improvement in all areas. The high school graduation rate has increased from 52% to 78%; college entry rate from 37% to 61%. With that in mind, let me (as a Baltimore city taxpayer) offer some suggestions.
1. The Kirwan Commission does not address public charter schools or the use of vouchers, which allow children to attend private schools. In public school districts that have reported outsized educational gains in the last decade, the common denominator has been increased autonomy for school leaders in the form of friendly public charter laws, as well as allowing social entrepreneurs to employ models that work for children. For example, the KIPP School in Baltimore sees children go on to graduate from high school at a rate of 93% vs. the citywide graduation rate of 72%. The Kirwan Commission report requires spending more money on a system that is currently ineffective.
2. We should measure teachers and school leaders on student achievement, including ability to read and do math. There must be accountability. Measures of performance are sometimes difficult because of the wide divergence of student ability. Nevertheless, both objective and subjective elements must be put into place so that educators can be judged on their results.
3. Principals should have authority over their schools and be able to hire and fire teachers.This issue raises the question of the role of teachers unions, which are most concerned with protecting their members. However, any teacher who is underperforming should be replaced because the rights of children should take precedence.
4. We must find a way to sell parents on the value of education, of reading to their infant children, insisting that their kids go to school each day and making sure homework is done each night. The schools cannot, regardless of how much money is spent, fix all society’s problems. The children are there only several hours each day.
5. Proposals to pay for the Kirwan Commission’s recommendations include increasing the income tax rates for individuals and corporations, as well as reducing the exemption for the estate tax. As we have seen in other parts of the country, these are the very factors that encourage the exodus of people and businesses to other states. A favorable business climate is essential if Maryland is to have a tax base that can support essential services, such as education.
The Kirwan Commission’s proposal to expand pre-K and its emphasis on career training both make sense. But other more significant changes are also necessary. Rather than pouring money into the existing situation, we should focus on accountability. And instead of marginalizing public charter schools where children from all zip codes are excelling, we should affirm and grow them. These suggestions involve some hard choices. Let’s try them — for the benefit of our kids, our community and our state.
John T. Williams, a Baltimore City resident, is CEO of Jamison Door Company located in Hagerstown. He can be reached at email@example.com.