By David Jahng
Capital News Service
Parents can expect to see advances in pre-K, tutoring and special education first, among all of the recommendations of a statewide education reform panel, according to its namesake chairman, William “Brit” Kirwan.
“What parents will see is just a steady drumbeat of improvement in the experiences that their children are having in the schools,” Kirwan told Capital News Service.
The Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education, or the Kirwan Commission, finalized in December its recommendations and costs to fix large achievement gaps, boost school funding for poorer students and improve teacher retention for Maryland public schools from 2020 to 2030.
Determining the geographic distribution of the funds is the next step for the commission, which presented an overview of its $3.8 billion plan to a joint legislative committee on Thursday.
“We will see a school system in Maryland that will be the envy of the country and perform at the level of the best performing systems around the world,” if all the recommendations are funded, Kirwan said.
Kirwan said the commission wants $325 million to jumpstart the program this year; Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan has allocated $235.8 million in his fiscal year 2020 budget proposal.
Kirwan said the commission is focusing on five major policy areas to be incorporated into the Maryland school system over the next 10 years: Investing in early childhood education; elevating teaching into a high-status profession; creating college and career-readiness pathways; ensuring all students have equal access to education and implementing an oversight board for accountability.
“We have to think of this as a carefully quilted package of initiatives that fit together as a whole,” Kirwan said.
Steven Hershkowitz, policy director of the Maryland State Education Association, said under current funding formulas, free public pre-K is only available to 4-year-olds from families at 185 percent of the poverty line or below.
Hershkowitz said with the Kirwan plan, free access for public programs would also include 3-year-olds, and expand to income levels at 300 percent of the poverty line or below.
An expanded pre-K program and revamping how college preparedness tests work by creating a 10th-grade test that determines career readiness would create new pathways to success for students, Hershkowitz said.
He said the teachers union is more supportive than frustrated by the Kirwan recommendations, though he is concerned about requiring National Board Certification for teachers.
He said there is no state that has come close to making all teachers reach the “gold-standard” of certification. “It’s not a route that every teacher wants to take. We would like there to still be more options for teachers.”
Kirwan told lawmakers that Massachusetts, which launched education reform in 1993, was an example for the committee’s recommendations.
The changes increased state aid to schools, set higher goals for academic achievement and required more accountability in the education system, three points the Maryland plan includes.
However, Sen. Arthur Ellis, D-Charles County, said in Massachusetts, minority communities did not excel following the changes; a study released in September found black and Latino students trailed behind white students in reading, grade and income level.
“We have a lot of low income, minority, rural communities left out of the progress,” said Ellis.
Ellis said Kirwan’s recommendations of wrap-around services at community schools that provide mental health, nutrition and physical support in the school building would be a “tremendous solution.”
“A kid shows up and they’re hungry, they’re not going to learn,” said Ellis.
Hershkowitz said Kirwan’s planned investments into a community-school model would be prioritized for areas with high concentrations of poverty.
Sen. Jack Bailey, R-Calvert and St. Mary’s counties, said a 2016 study showed recommendations for St. Mary’s County would cause a 5 percent increase in funding, but still put them on the same level playing field as other counties.
“Obviously we want a world-class education, but we want a funding formula that works for us, especially in rural counties,” said Bailey. “We want equality.”
Kirwan said Massachusetts’ shortcomings among minorities made the commission “place laser-like focus on equity.”
“We’ve learned from what Massachusetts didn’t do,” said Kirwan. “We can’t leave any kid behind, this has to be for all of our children.”
He said equality was one of the most important recommendations, and told lawmakers that in the plan, more resources would be given to schools with high concentrations of impoverished students.
Finding a revenue stream is the third stage of the Kirwan plan and would be up to the legislature, Hershkowitz said.
“Education, education, education” would be the legislature’s top priority for the 2019 session, Senate President Mike Miller, D-Prince George, Charles and Calvert counties, said earlier this month.
Legislators have tossed around multiple ideas on how to raise the revenue required for the commission, from legalization of marijuana to sports betting.
Miller and House Speaker Michael Busch, D-Anne Arundel, have both entertained the idea of legalizing and taxing recreational marijuana.
“I think that’s (recreational marijuana is) the future,” Busch said earlier this month. “It will be much like overturning prohibition.”
Kirwan said he recognizes the General Assembly has to deal with the realities of spending affordability and said he hopes they will do all they can to fund the recommendations.
Kirwan said Maryland’s economic future is dependent on a well-educated workforce, and that high-quality education is the only path out of poverty.
“We can’t afford not to do this.”