Ambitious Md. effort to boost, change education funding delayed another year

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William E. Kirwan, shown in 2016, chairs Maryland’s Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

By Ovetta Wiggins

A Maryland panel charged with reshaping the state’s school systems posed a daunting question nearly two years ago: How do you transform a “middle of the pack” American education system into one of the best-performing in the world?

Hundreds of hours of discussion later, the Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education has come up with some ideas for the General Assembly and Gov. Larry Hogan (R) to consider during the 2019 legislative session, which begins next month.

The recommendations, designed to ensure that all students, regardless of race and ethnicity, are “college- and career-ready” by grade 10, include broadly expanding early-childhood education, sharply increasing teacher pay and greatly boosting spending on special education.

But the panel, also known as the Kirwan Commission, won’t offer spending formulas for how to pay for it all, delaying for another year any significant action.

The delay staves off what probably would have been a major battle within the Democratic-majority legislature, and between Hogan and lawmakers, over how state and local governments could come up with billions more dollars for schools.

It is the commission’s second request for more time since the panel was created in 2016. The still-pending final report was originally due last December.

Toward the end of a marathon meeting Wednesday, less than an hour before the commission was scheduled to adjourn, chairman William E. Kirwan distributed a letter from state Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) and House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) suggesting the panel continue its work into a third year.

“Given the breadth of the commission charge and the rigor and the thoroughness with which the Commission has addressed its charge, we understand that it is virtually impossible for the formulas to be completed in time for action during the 2019 Legislative Session,” the letter reads. “The work of the commission is too important to rush through without something so critical as funding formulas that will ensure that the debate in the General Assembly is backed by the best available data.”

Commission members had thought that the state would use casino gambling revenue to help pay for its recommendations. Voters overwhelmingly approved a ballot question Nov. 6 that mandated using all tax revenue from the state’s six casinos to supplement spending on K-12 education.

But last week Hogan proposed spending $1.9 billion from casino money on school construction over the next five years, which would leave less available for school operations. The governor has said the casino revenue will generate $4.4 billion over the next 10 years, and he has vowed not to approve any tax increases to pay for Kirwan recommendations.

Hogan also balked at the idea of the state giving additional money to local school districts without putting in place stronger accountability measures.

“Just investing record amounts of money doesn’t necessarily solve all the problems we have in education,” he said. “We want to make sure dollars are getting into the classrooms and they are not being wasted.”

Miller and Busch’s letter said the governor’s remarks indicate “we have more work to do to convince the Governor that these generational changes are worth undertaking.”

In an interview Thursday, Busch criticized Hogan’s desire to spend so much of the casino revenue on school construction. He said the state needs to invest in new policy as well.

“You have to have both,” Busch said. “It’s nice to have a shiny new car, but if it doesn’t have a motor in it, it’s just going to sit in the driveway.”

Amelia Chasse, a spokeswoman for Hogan, said in a statement that the governor “supports continuing to invest in our schools in a way that is fiscally responsible and incorporates strong accountability.”

The General Assembly’s Spending Affordability Committee decided earlier this week that $200 million would be available next year to begin implementing some of the commission’s recommendations. The money — a quarter of what commission members were expecting in fiscal 2020 — would go to a partial pre-K expansion, teacher raises, funding for behavioral health and special education, and grants for schools with high concentrations of students from low-income families.

State Sen. Paul G. Pinsky (D-Prince George’s), who serves on the Kirwan Commission, cautioned members that there was “no consensus now to raise revenue in this coming session” and that getting funding for additional recommendations would be a “heavy lift” in the legislature.

“Unconscionable. . . . Why are we conceding?” commissioner Kalman Hettleman said during the nearly 10-hour meeting Wednesday. “Don’t we have an obligation to say what is adequate for the kids?”

The commission, which will meet again in January, plans to ask for an additional $125 million in education spending for the coming year, on top of the $200 million the affordability committee recommended.

The commission is pushing for significantly more funding for school initiatives in the future — $1.5 billion for fiscal 2021 and $2.6 billion in 2022, for example. By 2030, the proposal increases to $3.8 billion, a reduction from an earlier proposal for $4.4 billion in funds.

It is also recommending the state expand pre-K to all 4-year-olds over the next decade, and to all 3-year-olds from families who earn less than 300 percent of the federal poverty limit. Maryland offers free pre-K to 4-year-olds based on income eligibility. But the panel said top-performing countries offer free or low-cost early-childhood education to all children ages 3 to 5.

Members of the commission clashed over several other recommendations, with some on the panel saying they would be a hard sell to lawmakers and the public.

Among them was a plan to increase the average class size from 20.5 students to 23 students in grades four and above. The overall student-teacher ratio would drop from 15-to-1 to 12.5-to-1 under this plan, the commission said, because more teachers would be hired to work in small groups.

Ultimately, the panel decided to recommend increasing class sizes once schools showed improvements in student performance.

Some commission members wanted to add $300 million to help students with special needs and those who receive English as a Second Language services. Others balked at the extra expense.

“This is an area that we need to be very aggressive,” said commissioner Craig Rice, a Democrat who serves on the Montgomery County Council. “They need the services right now. If we are going to be closing that equity gap and opportunity gap, this is where it is.”

Outgoing state Sen. Richard S. Madaleno (D-Montgomery), who also is on the panel, said he agreed with Rice’s sentiments but did not think such spending was feasible, given budget constraints, “if we want this whole package to be taken credibly.”

A scaled-back version of the proposal was adopted.

Via Washington Post 

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