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Maryland lawmakers file ‘groundbreaking,’ expensive bill for sweeping overhaul of state’s public schools

Maryland lawmakers have filed a “groundbreaking” bill that would mean a sweeping overhaul of the state’s public schools.
Maryland lawmakers have filed a “groundbreaking” bill that would mean a sweeping overhaul of the state’s public schools.(Antonio Perez / Chicago Tribune)

Maryland lawmakers filed a “groundbreaking” but expensive 199-page bill Thursday that would mean a sweeping overhaul of the state’s public schools ― boosting teacher pay, expanding vocational training and funding additional services for children in the poorest communities.

Called The Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, the legislation builds off the recommendations of the so-called Kirwan Commission, which for years has studied how best to improve education.

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The overhaul, estimated to cost $4 billion a year after it’s fully phased in over 10 years, is “necessary to transform Maryland’s education system to world-class student achievement levels,” the legislation states. Over a decade, the cumulative increase to public schools would total about $32 billion.

The legislation does not contain a funding mechanism, but lawmakers are considering an array of options to pay for it, including legalizing sports betting, increasing a tax on tobacco, and taxing digital downloads and internet ads.

“We have a historic opportunity to impact the lives of thousands of Maryland’s children," said House of Delegates Speaker Adrienne A. Jones, a Baltimore County Democrat. “The Blueprint for Maryland’s Future will invest in every child to ensure that even those that didn’t get the best start in life have a brighter future."

Jones said she looked forward to working with Senate President Bill Ferguson, a Baltimore Democrat, to “pass this groundbreaking legislation so that every child, regardless of ZIP code, can attend the very best schools in the nation.”

Ferguson said the legislation represents the culmination of three years of hard work by education, business and community leaders.

“We now face a once in a generation opportunity to improve education for every Marylander, improve our workforce, and become a global model in k-12 education,” he said.

Sen. J.B. Jennings, the Senate minority leader, said Republicans have many questions about the Kirwan bill that they’re hoping to hash out with Democrats. For example, Jennings said, the plan doesn’t address school safety or reducing class sizes.

On top of that, there’s no clear way to pay for it, he said.

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“The big thing is: How are they going to fund this? What’s their funding source?” asked Jennings, who represents Harford and Baltimore counties. “It sounds like what they are going to do is come up with these little, small avenues of revenue by this tax, that tax, this loophole, that loophole.”

The state’s share of the increase would be $2.8 billion a year at the full phase-in, while local governments would pay a combined $1.2 billion more annually.

The city of Baltimore would bear one of the most significant cost increases: $330 million by 2030. Lawmakers have discussed amending the bill in committee to accommodate Baltimore City and Prince George’s County, which would have to pay $360 million more by 2030. Those two jurisdictions also would receive the largest boosts in state funding.

Baltimore Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young said Thursday night that he would fight to help pass the legislation.

“The introduction of these bills represents a major milestone in realizing our promise to provide our children with the educational opportunities that they deserve," the Democrat said.

The legislation contains dozens of recommendations, including expanding prekindergarten to all 4-year-olds, as well as 3-year-olds from poor families; increasing the standards to become a teacher and raising teacher salaries (qualifying as a “master teacher,” for instance, would come with a $10,000 raise); revamping high schools to offer students training for well-paying jobs right after graduation; establishing more “community schools” with additional services for students and their families; and providing more support to special education students and schools with concentrations of poor families.

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For months, Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, has said the Kirwan plans are unaffordable. He called the panel the “Kirwan Tax Hike Commission” and criticized its work as “well-meaning," but “half-baked" and “fiscally irresponsible.”

But in his annual State of the State speech Wednesday, Hogan said he wanted to work with Democrats on the proposal.

“I stand here today ready and willing to continue working alongside you to ensure that every single child in our state has access to a great education, regardless of what neighborhood they happen to grow up in,” the governor said.

“But instead of continuing to simply debate how much more we should spend, let’s have productive discussions about how we can hold local school systems accountable for the billions of state tax dollars we are already investing, and let’s make sure those dollars are getting into the classrooms where they belong.”

The legislation mandates the creation of an independent, seven-member Accountability and Implementation Board, to be appointed by the governor, to oversee the overhaul.

Local school systems would be required to submit plans showing how they are implementing the law. In addition to scrutinizing how schools are spending state taxpayers’ money, the board would be required to study student performance and how well the policies are closing an achievement gap among different races of students.

Del. Eric Luedtke, the House majority leader, called the legislation “groundbreaking.”

“It’s going to make a massive difference for hundreds of thousands of kids in Maryland,” said Luedtke, a Montgomery County Democrat.

He said he believed objections from GOP legislators have more to do with the plan’s costs than its proposals.

“Some of us think this is a groundbreaking plan and are willing to fund it, and some of us aren’t,” he said.

The General Assembly created the Kirwan Commission in 2016 with the charge of making recommendations on how to prepare students for college or the workforce so they can “meet the challenges of a changing global economy” and “be successful citizens in the 21st century.”

The Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education was nicknamed after its chairman, William E. “Brit” Kirwan. A former chancellor of the University System of Maryland and former president of the University of Maryland, College Park, he was appointed chairman jointly by Hogan, the Senate president and the House speaker.

The 26-member commission was composed of several state lawmakers, the state’s schools superintendent, Hogan’s budget secretary, the chancellor of the university system and representatives from state and local school boards, teachers’ unions, school administrators, parents and others.

State lawmakers previously passed a bill requiring the state to spend $850 million on Kirwan programs for two years, starting July 1. That money is funded in Hogan’s most recent budget.

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Democratic Del. Talmadge Branch of Baltimore, who as House majority whip is in charge of shoring up votes, said passing the legislation is his most important mission this session.

“We have to make sure we do better by the students of Maryland,” Branch said. “It’s the top of the charts on our list. We’re looking for different funding sources. It has to happen.”

The legislation, slated for formal introduction Friday morning, was cheered by the state’s teachers union, which has pushed hard to see its proposals enacted.

“This is it: Our once-in-a-generation chance to fundamentally improve our public schools and make sure that every student in every neighborhood has the opportunities, support and attention that they deserve,” said Cheryl Bost, president of the union and a Baltimore County teacher.

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