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Despite an expensive price tag of $4 billion a year, the recommendations of the state’s Kirwan Commission to improve public schools would begin paying for themselves by 2034 as a better-educated workforce earns higher salaries, pays more in taxes and uses fewer public assistance programs, a new study concludes.

The study, “An Economic Assessment of Kirwan Commission Recommendations,” was written by Baltimore-based Sage Policy Group Inc., whose CEO, Anirban Basu, serves as chairman of Gov. Larry Hogan’s Economic Development Commission. The study was paid for by the nonprofit coalition called Strong Schools Maryland that is advocating for the Kirwan Commission’s recommendations to become law.

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The Kirwan Commission is recommending the state expand prekindergarten to all 4-year-olds, as well as 3-year-olds from poor families; increase the standards to become a teacher and raise teacher salaries; revamp high schools to offer students training for well-paying jobs right after graduation; establish more “community schools” with additional services for students and their families; provide more support to special education students and schools with concentrations of poor families; and create an accountability program to make sure money for education goes where it’s supposed to.

The commission envisions phasing in new and expanded programs over 10 years. The state’s share of the increased costs would be $2.8 billion at the full phase-in, while local governments would pay $1.2 billion more combined.

In the new study, Sage Policy Group said it took “no view regarding the merit of any individual recommendation nor their collective appeal” but said there are a “number of reasons that better educational outcomes translate into superior economic ones.”

Residents who earn a graduate degree typically make five times more in their lifetimes than those who fail to graduate from high school, while relying less on public assistance. High education levels also correlate with lower levels of incarceration, the report states.

The study says a typical class of Maryland students right now is expected to pay $8.9 billion in state and local taxes over a lifetime, but if the Kirwan Commission recommendations boost students’ academic performance, thereby increasing salaries, the same group of students could be expected to pay $12.5 billion in taxes over their lives.

While Kirwan would begin paying for itself by 2034, the billions invested by Maryland taxpayers would be fully paid off by 2046, the report concludes.

The study also compares Maryland with Massachusetts, which passed the Education Reform Act of 1993 that is credited with improving the quality of the state’s schools. Before the act’s passage, workers from Maryland and Massachusetts made about the same salary. Today, the average Massachusetts resident earns more than $8,000 more than the average Marylander, the study says.

“Whatever one believes about the Kirwan Commission and its recommendations, it is clear that Maryland needs to shift away from its status quo,” the report states. “A bit more than a quarter century ago, the Massachusetts Education Reform Act of 1993 took effect. The Act mandated sweeping changes to public education in the Commonwealth. Like proposals for educational reform in Maryland, there was a hefty price-tag in the billions of dollars. ... Rather than sink the Massachusetts economy, educational reform has been associated with a Massachusetts miracle, one that has been associated with a massive boom in innovation in and around Boston and the rejuvenation of New England’s largest city.”

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