When the Maryland General Assembly passed legislation last year putting the recommendations of the Kirwan Commission on public education into the state budget for three years, there was little critical debate. The substance of the proposal went largely unquestioned, and any opposition was denounced as reflecting a lack of commitment to public schools and students. Now, though, lawmakers actually have to find the money to pay for Kirwan, and some may be getting cold feet. Good. It is time to focus attention on the fact that what is really bold about the commission’s course of action is not its so-called reforms but rather its big price tag.
The 10-year plan, recommended by the commission created in 2016 by the state legislature and chaired by former chancellor of the University of Maryland William E. “Brit” Kirwan, would require $4 billion a year in new spending from state and local governments. Democrats who have veto-proof majorities in Annapolis are considering an array of options — including expansion of the sales tax to include professional services, legalizing sports betting and boosting the state’s tobacco tax — to finance its share. The impact on local governments, which rely on property taxes and county-level income taxes, would vary greatly. Officials in some — such as Baltimore City and Prince George’s — said they can’t afford the costs of the current formulas. Gov. Larry Hogan (R) has taken to calling the commission the “Kirwan Tax Hike Commission,” criticizing its work as “well-meaning” but “fiscally irresponsible.”
We believe, as we said last year, that the 26-member commission did a public service by puncturing the myth that Maryland schools perform at or near the top nationally when, in truth, they are mediocre — in a country that has a mediocre education record internationally. But the commission largely pulled its punches in coming up with solutions, falling back instead on the premise that the more you spend on education, the better the outcomes.
Maryland’s own experience has proved that not to be true. A previous educational panel, the Thornton Commission, resulted in historic boosts in school spending in 2002, but, despite that spending, less than 40 percent of Maryland high school graduates can read at a 10th-grade level, and the achievement gap that separates African American and Hispanic students from their white peers continues. The Kirwan Commission’s central claim that Maryland has underinvested in schools is undermined by figures showing that in 2017, the most recent year for which national data is available, Maryland spent 22 percent more on a per-pupil basis and paid its teachers 28 percent more than the national average.
There are certainly worthwhile recommendations in the commission report, but just spending more without attacking the inherent problems or insisting on real accountability is misguided. We agree, for example, that teachers should be paid more, but why not figure out smarter ways to reward the most effective ones and encourage them to work in struggling schools where they are most needed? Those pushing to fully implement Kirwan speak ominously about the “cost of doing nothing.” But Kirwan comes with a high cost while doing far too little.