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Kirwan tells lawmakers not to ‘pick and choose’ on education needs

Brit Kirwan speaks Thursday, Jan. 24, 2019 in Annapolis. (The Daily Record / Bryan P. Sears)

William “Brit” Kirwan speaks to lawmakers in Annapolis on Thursday. (The Daily Record / Bryan P. Sears)

ANNAPOLIS — The chair of a state panel on public education called on lawmakers to not make a la carte changes to its recommendations for sweeping changes to schools in Maryland.

William “Brit” Kirwan, the chairman of the eponymous panel otherwise known as the Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education, told members of two committees that the recommendations are designed to create a world-class education system and should be implemented together.

The price tag — estimated currently to be about $3.8 billion — has a number of lawmakers worried.

“The commission feels very strongly that this is not a pick and choose your favorite policy. That this is an integrated whole. That if you pick them apart you won’t get the results that we know we will get based on what high performers do,” said Kirwan when asked about how to pay for the proposal and if the legislature could adopt policies that have broad support. “We have to think of this as a carefully quilted package of initiatives that fit together as a whole.”

Maryland was once rated as one of the top public education systems in the country — in many ways based on the amount of money the state pumps into education annually. In recent years, the ranking has fallen to fifth.

Kirwan said the state’s education system produces students who “perform at a mediocre level in the country … in a country that performs at a very mediocre level globally.” That system leaves students underprepared for college and the workforce, especially students in poor jurisdictions who then cannot escape generational poverty.

The commission’s two-year work on overhauling the state’s public education system represents the first time the legislature has undertaken a sweeping upgrade to education since lawmakers passed the $1.3 billion plan known as the Thornton Commission funding formulas.

The new formulas, as under Thornton, would determine what counties have to pay and the share of state aid they get. Kirwan said the state needs to better fund less wealthy areas.

Sen. Mary Beth Carozza, R-Eastern Shore, worried that new formulas would ignore growing pockets of poor in her communities.

“The current state wealth formulas don’t take into account local demographics. They put Worcester (County) as a wealthy county but doesn’t take into account the 45 percent that are on free and reduced lunch,” said Carozza. “I still have headlines in my district that Kirwan could be devastating.”

The legislature will set out this year to implement some of the recommendations made late last year at a cost of about $325 million. In the meantime, the commission continues to work on  formulas that will determine how much aid each jurisdiction should receive — Kirwan said poorer, underperforming systems will need more than richer counties — and how the state and each county will contribute to the overall plan.

“There are tremendous savings that can accrue to the state if we have a really world-class education system,” said Kirwan, adding that the state “can continue to make incremental changes on our frankly mediocre education system or we can really be bold.”

But the commission, as was the Thornton panel, is not charged with making recommendations on how to pay for the reforms and additional costs.

“You can’t do this on the cheap,” said Sen. Paul Pinsky, D-Prince George’s and chair of the Senate Education, Health and Environmental  Affairs Committee and a member of the Kirwan Commission.

Sen. Andrew Serafini, R-Washington and a member of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee, said the state cannot afford the total cost of commission’s recommendations.

“I’m skeptical,” said Serafini. “I have a lot of questions.”

Serafini said tax increases at state and local government levels to cover the spending would be needed but would be difficult to sell to the public and local governments.

“It’s (the money) not there any other way,” said Serafini. If you look at the out years, we have structural deficits in the out years. We’ve got to have more in the rainy day fund. We don’t have the revenues to do this and there’s no path, I think, to tax your way to this.  I don’t see where you can go to Baltimore County and say you’ve got to up your game by a lot. Certainly Baltimore City is not in a position to do that.”

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