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Maryland school funding legislation calls for $1 billion over two years to start meeting Kirwan goals

Maryland school funding legislation calls for $1 billion over two years to start meeting Kirwan goals
The Maryland State House, reflected in a window, as the General Assembly convened its 439th session on Jan. 9, 2019, in Annapolis. (Matt McClain / The Washington Post)

Democratic leaders in the General Assembly introduced legislation Monday that would boost funding in Maryland’s public schools by hundreds of millions to pay for ambitious education proposals.

The so-called Blueprint for Maryland’s Future — introduced by House of Delegates Speaker Michael Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller — would provide more than $1 billion in funding from the state budget over the next two years to begin implementing the recommendations from a commission studying how to best improve the state’s schools.

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“Our goal is designed to make Maryland the best education system in the country, but also to make us more competitive worldwide,” Busch said in a statement. “This bill is an important first step toward the overall goal and demonstrates our commitment to the full Kirwan report.”

The lawmakers planned a news conference Tuesday in Annapolis to discuss their proposals.

The legislation did not identify a funding stream for the initiatives. Democratic leaders said the money for the first year could be found within the state’s $46.6 billion budget.

The legislation comes in response to an interim report from the Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education — the so-called Kirwan commission, nicknamed after its chairman, former University System of Maryland Chancellor William “Brit” Kirwan.

It recommended several proposals to boost schools in Maryland, including implementing full-day prekindergarten that is free for low-income 3- and 4-year olds, and expanding services for even younger children and their families; hiring and retaining high-quality and diverse teachers, and toughening certification standards; increasing standards and services so that all students are ready for college or career, with particular attention on students in schools with high concentrations of poverty; and establishing a strong accountability system to oversee the commission’s recommendations.

To begin paying for the recommendations, the legislation calls for $325 million in increased funding from state taxpayers for public schools for fiscal year 2020 and $750 million in fiscal year 2021.

Among the spending over two years would be:

» $80 million over two years to expand full-day prekindergarten in the state for 4-year-olds;

» $150 million to provide a 1.5 percent average raise for teacher salaries;

» $46 million for more services for struggling learners;

» $110 million in grants for schools with high concentrations of poverty;

» $275 million more for special education.

“From raising teacher salaries to investing in career and technical education to ensuring all kids have great public schools regardless of zip code, the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future will position our state to lead the nation in education and win jobs of the future,” said Sean Johnson, who is director of legislative affairs for the state’s teachers union. “This legislation is a critical commitment to that plan and educators stand ready to rally support for its passage while we work on finalizing and enacting a school funding formula within the next year.”

The Kirwan commission is continuing its work of deciding how precisely to fund its full recommendations — which would cost about $3.8 billion annually within 10 years.

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The commission has yet to come up with formulas that would spell out how much the state has to pay and how much local jurisdictions contribute.

Sen. Stephen Hershey, an Eastern Shore Republican who serves as minority whip, said he hadn’t seen the legislation. But he questioned how Democrats propose paying for the increased services, given that lawmakers may have to work with less-than-expected revenue this budget cycle.

“The whole thing has always been, how do you fund something like Kirwan?” he asked.

State lawmakers have already set aside $200 million in additional aid to school systems for the coming year.

Advocates say new funding streams — such as tax increases — will likely be needed to fund the full proposals.

Baltimore schools CEO Sonja Santelises said the legislation comes at a pivotal time for Maryland students. She said there is an increasing recognition around the country that schools with large numbers of poor or minority students are not receiving adequate funding.

“This is a real day of reckoning for an incredibly wealthy state,” she said. “This is a great first step, but we have to see it through in the entirety.”

Research by the nonprofit Education Trust has found that the city of Baltimore and Prince George’s County are the most poorly funded districts in Maryland, compared to their needs.

A study conducted for state legislative analysts last December concluded Baltimore schools were funded adequately in 2008, but now are funded at just 81 percent of their needs. The city schools now receive $290 million less each year than what lawmakers had previously agreed they needed, the study said.

The Kirwan commission also is recommending creating an oversight board with the authority to make certain that new funds are used to implement its policy recommendations effectively.

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