ANNAPOLIS — The leader of a commission charged with revamping the state’s public education system offered a blistering rebuttal Thursday to comments by Gov. Larry Hogan, who last week called the panel’s plan “well-meaning but half-baked.”
William “Brit” Kirwan rebuked Hogan, who spoke Saturday at the Maryland Association of Counties convention, as a work group met Thursday to continue work on recommendations about how to pay for the planned sweeping changes to the education system.
“Not only do I believe that to be totally inaccurate, (but) it demeans the hard work of the 25 dedicated individuals,” said Kirwan of the panel’s members, at one point punctuating his comments with a fist pump.
Kirwan said the plan was “detailed and thoughtful.”
Under the Kirwan recommendations, public school systems would seek to hire and retain highly trained and nationally certified teachers — paying them $60,000 to $80,000 annually — as well as fund mandatory pre-K programs for poor families and improve curriculums for students to make them college- or career-ready by the 10th grade. The plan also calls for closing achievement gaps between white and minority students and for accountability measures that Kirwan said would tie funding to performance.
“This is the plan that the governor said the commission advanced with little thought,” Kirwan said. “Fortunately, he seems to be alone in that view.”
The plan comes with a high price tag — $3.8 billion annually before inflation adjustments when it is fully phased in over the next decade. Most of that funding — about $3 billion — would be front-loaded into the first three years under the current scenario.
“I fully recognize that there are very legitimate questions that need serious thought, including how the state and counties fund the means to support the recommendations and the appropriate timeline for implementation,” Kirwan said.
Kirwan noted that fewer than 40 percent of Maryland high school graduates can read at the 10th-grade level and cannot pass a first-year algebra exam.
“To the criticism of the blueprint legislation I ask: Are you willing to accept the status quo?” asked Kirwan, adding that a refusal to change could be disastrous.
“This means we are robbing too many of our children of the chance at a good job and a high quality of life, and we are sowing the seeds of a declining economy because of the inadequate skills of our future workforce,” he said.
Del. Maggie McIntosh, D-Baltimore, stressed the importance of the state’s implementing all of the recommendations and noted that as many as 10 other states are using Maryland as a guide in fashioning their own plans to improve education.
“If we do not press forward and achieve the goals that the Kirwan Commission has outlined for us, we will fall behind other states who have looked to us as a model and may find a way forward when we don’t,” McIntosh said.
Hogan on Saturday repeated concerns he had expressed earlier about the costs associated with Kirwan, portraying the plan as a budget-buster that would require massive increases to either the sales, income or property taxes to close a nearly $19 billion budget deficit projected in the first five years of the plan.
David Brinkley, the governor’s budget director, said Thursday that despite years of discussing the Kirwan plan, there was still no agreement on how it would be paid for.
“My concern is that we have a public that has certain false expectations of what might be moving forward and no one has looked at that camera up there and said how (the Kirwan plan) is going to be paid for,” said Brinkley, pointing to a committee room camera used to livestream meetings.
Brinkley defended Hogan’s comments, saying that the plan isn’t complete until funding is found and that while Hogan supports education reform, he does not want to raise taxes to pay for it.
The Kirwan plan “is a cake, like it or not,” Brinkley said, referring to Hogan’s “half-baked” comment. “We have all the ingredients in there, but we still don’t know what it’s going to look like.”
The Kirwan Commission and related subgroups have met for the better part of three years. Last year, the legislature voted to approve a blueprint package that included funding for some Kirwan recommendations over the next two years. But questions about how to pay for the plan and about how local governments will handle their share of the costs remain unanswered.
The unanswered questions concern leaders of local governments, who may find themselves having to collectively cover $2 billion in additional costs.
“It’s just the overriding concern of how they’re going to pay for it,” said Harford County Executive Barry Glassman, a Republican and a member of the commission’s funding panel. “That’s part of the nervousness — not knowing.”
The meeting Thursday was one of four scheduled through September. The work group is to deliver draft recommendations to the full Kirwan Commission by October, with a final plan set to go to the legislature by the end of the year. Kirwan said the panel would likely consider how to even out funding over the next decade to soften the impact. Also under consideration is a possible extension of the phase-in period, perhaps to 15 years.
Still, Kirwan warned, new revenues — a tax increase or an expansion — will likely be needed.
The Kirwan recommendations are in many ways similar to a plan, known as the Thornton plan, passed in 2002 to improve public education by pumping in $1.3 billion over six years.
The General Assembly passed the Thornton plan without identifying ways to pay for it except for in the first year, when money from the tobacco restitution fund was used. A national recession at the end of the decade ushered in an era of budget retrenchment and cost the state $1.2 billion in revenue over a two-year period.
Brinkley said no one should want to return to that era.
“One of the reasons we’re here is because of the repercussions that we funded everything in (Thornton) and other elements in the state went wanting and needing,” Brinkley said.