xml:space="preserve">
Advertisement

'A matter of life and death’: Maryland lawmakers tackle Kirwan education funding bill with marathon hearing

Supporters of the Kirwan Commission on education reform descend on Annapolis.

Maryland lawmakers began their formal review Monday of sweeping, expensive legislation that supporters say would raise the state’s public schools to the world-class levels of such educational powerhouses as Finland, Singapore and Ontario.

The multibillion-dollar effort has been talked about for years, but now faces its most significant step: Winning veto-proof support in the General Assembly. The $4 billion annual plan, proposed by Democrats, faces stiff opposition from Republicans, including Gov. Larry Hogan.

Advertisement

“If Maryland would just do this, it would become the leader for education reform in our country and, my God, what an opportunity we have," said William “Brit” Kirwan, a former University System of Maryland chancellor who led a state commission that recommended the upgrades under consideration.

The legislature’s education and budget committees held a joint hearing Monday in Annapolis that lasted just over six hours. More than 100 people signed up to testify and so many people were jammed into the legislature’s largest hearing room that a fan was brought in.

Baltimore Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young, a Democrat, testified that poor educations have resulted in too many young people ending up dead on the city’s streets.

“When people ask me, ‘Why is Kirwan so important?’ I say it’s because for some of our young people having the right support is literally a matter of life and death,” Young said.

However, Young noted the bill’s requirement that some local schools systems, including Baltimore’s, contribute hundreds of millions of dollars more for public schools is simply unaffordable.

Under the legislation, the state’s share of the increased school funding would grow to $2.8 billion a year by 2030, while local governments would pay a combined $1.2 billion more annually. Baltimore City would have to pay $340 million more annually ― an amount few analysts believe the cash-strapped jurisdiction can afford.

“While I am committed to doing more locally to provide additional financial support to our school system, this amount is simply beyond our current capacity,” Young testified.

The ACLU of Maryland testified it supported the Kirwan legislation with amendments to address “race and wealth equity.” In its statement, the group also said the state must do more to help jurisdictions most damaged by “generations of underfunding.”

Advertisement

“Any funding proposal must prioritize helping those districts, which are the furthest from funding ‘adequacy,’ to reach the baseline," the organization wrote.

The Kirwan Commission’s report calls for additional programs, such as expanding prekindergarten to more students, enhanced standards and higher salaries for teachers, improved college- and career-prep programs in high schools, and more support for schools with high concentrations of students from poor families. It would make the starting salary for teachers $60,000 a year.

The programs come with a steep price tag: Over a decade, the cumulative increase to the state’s public schools would total about $32 billion.

House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones opened the hearing by saying that the bill is a “transformational plan” to improve public schools.

“Maryland students are struggling to compete among their peers internationally," said Jones, a Baltimore County Democrat. “Much of the public conversation has been about how we pay for this plan ... The first three years of this plan are paid for.”

State lawmakers passed a bill in 2019 that puts Kirwan programs into the budget for three years.

Advertisement

The bill under consideration mandates the amount of spending, but does not say where the money should come from in the future. That’s drawn criticism from Hogan and GOP lawmakers.

Lawmakers are considering separately an array of options to raise money, from legalizing sports betting to boosting the state’s tobacco tax to applying the state sales tax to downloads of digital media, such as e-books and music. Jones and Senate President Bill Ferguson have pledged to pass the Kirwan bill without across-the-board increases in the state’s sales, income or property taxes.

Hogan renewed his criticism of the Kirwan Commission and the bill in advance of Monday’s hearing. He posted on his Facebook page that the plans amounted to “reckless and irresponsible spending proposals.”

“We cannot let this pass,” the post read ― a declaration that was later deleted ― before urging people to contact their lawmakers to tell them: “No massive tax hikes or budget deficits.”

Democrats hold three-fifths majorities in both the House and the Senate, the voting advantage needed to override a gubernatorial veto. Hogan has not threatened to veto the Kirwan bill, but that remains a concern for legislative leaders.

Republican lawmakers, meanwhile, sought unsuccessfully to delay Monday’s hearing, arguing that lawmakers needed more time to review the bill’s fiscal note, which was posted Sunday evening. A fiscal note is a nonpartisan summary and financial analysis of a bill.

“It is critical that this legislation is thoroughly vetted an analyzed, and that we hear from all parties who will be impacted by this legislation,” the Republican leaders wrote in a letter to leading Democrats.

The fiscal note states that while Baltimore would have to pay $340 million more for schools by 2030, the city would receive $469 million more from the state. Among the state’s local jurisdictions, only Prince George’s County would be required to increase its funding for schools more than Baltimore City. That county would have to pay $386 million more by 2030, while receiving $521 million more from the state.

Each of Maryland’s 24 jurisdictions would receive increased funding under the plan but six ― Calvert, Carroll, Charles, Howard, St. Mary’s and Somerset ― would not be required to pay more in part because some of those jurisdictions already robustly fund education.

During a rally supporting the legislation before the hearing, Kirwan warned education advocates against “powerful forces” that he said would try to water down the bill or strip out its funding requirements.

“Then there are people who just don’t want it to pass,” Kirwan said, without naming them.

Advertisement

A couple of hundred advocates gathered for the rally, which came on the Presidents Day federal holiday for many school systems and workplaces. Many wore blue T-shirts from the Strong Schools Maryland advocacy group that read: “Our kids can’t wait.” Supporters carried signs with slogans such as “Invest in our future, fund Kirwan” and “Better education, better life.”

Joe Francaviglia, director of Strong Schools Maryland, encouraged supporters to push hard to pass the bill as the 90-day General Assembly session neared its midpoint.

“This last 49 days, we need to redouble our efforts,” he said.

As lawmakers devoted their attention to the bill, Hogan made a separate education announcement Monday. He appointed Richard P. Henry as the state’s first inspector general for education.

A former federal law enforcement officer, Henry was most recently director of the Maryland State Department of Education’s compliance office. He will make $145,000 per year in his new role, which includes oversight of local school districts, private schools that receive state tax money and the state department of education.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement