William E. "Brit" Kirwan (second from left) briefs two Maryland Senate committees in Annapolis on a proposal to restructure the state's public education system on Jan. 24. (William J. Ford/The Washington Informer)
William E. "Brit" Kirwan (second from left) briefs two Maryland Senate committees in Annapolis on a proposal to restructure the state's public education system on Jan. 24. (William J. Ford/The Washington Informer)

ANNAPOLIS — The man behind an effort to overhaul Maryland’s education system urges lawmakers to spare no expense on behalf of the state’s nearly 900,000 public schools.

“We as a state cannot do nothing,” said William E. “Brit” Kirwan, who chairs the Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education. “I realize this is going to be a difficult issue to come to grips with, but we have to make it happen.”

Kirwan, a former chancellor at the University of Maryland, leads a 25-member commission created in 2016 to recommend any changes in the funding formula. It came up with five policy recommendations: invest in early childhood education; increase teacher salaries and standards; implement college and career ready credentials; provide more resources for low-income students; and establish an independent oversight board to ensure recommendations are followed through.

The proposed cost over a 10-year period would be $3.8 billion.

Kirwan briefed state senators Thursday, Jan. 24 before the Senate’s Education, Health and Environmental Affairs and Budget and Taxation committees. Then he walked across the street to explain plan to the House’s Ways and Means and Appropriations committees.

State Sen. William C. “Bill” Ferguson IV (D-Baltimore City), appointed to the commission last month and vice chair of Budget and Taxation Committee, asked Kirwan what most people envision about the education idea.

“There’s some [trepidation] of, ‘this is all great, but how do we pay for it?’” Ferguson said. “Also, why don’t we just do the things everybody agrees on, like pre-K, or why don’t we just do teacher salary?”

Kirwan pointed out that money toward early childhood without a curriculum won’t help build college and career readiness. He also said a strong curriculum still requires more high-quality teachers.

“The commission feels very strongly that this is not a pick-and-choose your favorite policy area,” he said. “This is an integrated poll. If you pick them apart, you won’t get the results that we know we will get based on what high performers do.”

Gov. Larry Hogan earmarked $325 million in his fiscal 2020 budget proposal for higher education projects, but calls for using the majority of that money for school construction and loans to assist local governments.

However, the commission’s initiatives include:

• $137.5 million in special education.

• $75 million to increase teacher salaries.

• $55 million in poverty grants.

• $2 million for behavioral and other health services.

A few senators such as Sen. Adelaide C. Eckardt, a Republican who represents four counties in the Eastern Shore, inquired about how will the commission establish a funding formula in jurisdictions with demographic changes.

“What’s going to be really difficult for many of our changing income counties on the shore … that we don’t overburden our local jurisdictions,” she said. “There’s only so much additional cost that the counties and the individuals [jurisdictions] in the county can absorbed.”

Kirwan said a committee will be created to determine how to divide the cost to fund these initiatives between the state local school districts. Work will begin after the General Assembly session ends in April and provide a recommendation to the commission and final approval in the fall.

Kirwan reiterated that the commission’s research comes from education systems in Massachusetts, New Hampshire and New Jersey. Those states pay its teachers at least 16 percent more in salaries than Maryland. In addition, the research highlights how the three states pay an average of $2,200 more per student than to Maryland.

Student achievement ranks “average” among others states based on figures from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), viewed as the nation’s record.

In 2015, Maryland ranked 29th and 25th in fourth-grade and eighth-grade math, respectively. For reading in the same year for those students, the state ranked 26th among fourth-graders and 18th for eighth-graders.

Sen. Paul Pinsky (D-District 22) of University Park, a member of the commission, assured his colleagues there will be more time to review the plan.

“There will be more time for questions,” he said. “This is only the first overview.”

Coverage for the Washington Informer includes Prince George’s County government, school system and some state of Maryland government. Received an award in 2019 from the D.C. Chapter of the Society of...

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