Kirwan Commission Members Air Misgivings as Interim Report Is Released

William E. (Brit) Kirwan

The long-awaited interim report of the Commission for Innovation and Excellence in Education was released this week.

In 150 pages, the commission spells out its broad hopes for change in Maryland education, recommendations that were crafted during more than 75 meetings and work sessions: raising academic standards to match those in the top-performing countries, creating new policies to attract highly qualified high school graduates into teaching careers, building career and technical education programs, and providing the resources that low-income and special needs children will need to perform far above current levels.

“Having heard from stakeholders across the State, it is clear the seriousness of our task resonates with all Marylanders. The future of our families, our communities, and our shared economic vitality hinges on lifting our whole education system to the levels of performance achieved by the world’s best,” Commission Chairman William “Brit” Kirwan said upon releasing the report.

But the long-awaited report, which runs 243 pages with appendices and other attachments, also includes 17 pages of commentary from 10 commission members and organizations quibbling with parts of the far-reaching plan.

No member of the 25-member commission voted against the final report, however two members abstained and a greater number said they would vote in favor of the report, but only if also allowed to provide written context and justification for their votes.

While commissioners who submitted additional comments generally supported the work of the panel, they took issue with a wide range of recommendations.

Chester E. Finn Jr., a member of the Maryland State Board of Education, wrote that he believed the commission would push the state in a “truly exciting direction with huge potential for a brighter, more prosperous and more equitable future,” but still voted in favor of the commission’s final report with several serious reservations and worries.

“…Every vested interest in the state will oppose changes of this magnitude, while clinging to the bits that advance their own interests. What Maryland needs is a ‘grand bargain’ that includes changes for all, gains for all and sacrifices by all, but that’s going to be a huge challenge for policymakers,” Finn wrote. And if that is accomplished, implementation and accountability will create even greater challenges, he said.

Finn also lamented the commission’s “refusal to endorse to recommend any form of school choice,” and said he felt the commission should have taken more steps to offset pricey policy recommendations, such as increasing recommended class sizes to 25 children, for example. “I’m ashamed of the Commission’s blindness to taxpayer concerns,” Finn wrote

Kalman R. Hettleman, a former member of the Baltimore school board and advocate for children with disabilities, said the commission’s recommendations forsake the creation of an adequate education system in favor of affordability.

“What we do know is Affordability has played a significant role in our recommendations to date. Adequacy advocates in the community are considering legal action in response to what they regard as our less-than-adequate recommendations,” Hettleman wrote. “We also know that it will never be politically easy to obtain Adequate educational opportunity for those who need it the most, especially children who are poor and of color. But the good news is that a new battle over Adequacy has begun, and the Commission has mightily advanced that cause.”

The Maryland State Education Association, represented by Executive Director David E. Helfman, expressed concern that the report showed a “lack of respect for the professional autonomy of our highly-trained educators,” including a focus on certain tests in kindergarten and 10th grade and a requirement that all teachers achieve National Board Certification. Helfman also expressed concern that the commission’s vision may not be achievable without adequate funding.

“There is still no assurance that the lack of fidelity to the Thornton funding formula — a large reason why our schools are now underfunded by $2.9 billion annually — will not happen again,” Helfman wrote. “Accountability is a two-way street: just as educators and districts are held accountable for implementing these recommendations, counties and the state must be held accountable for providing the funding to help improve our schools. Unfortunately, meaningful language to ensure that adequate funding is a prerequisite of these recommendations is not included.”

As an organization, MSEA is pushing lawmakers to pass this year $325 million for funding of the commission’s priorities in 2020, and a promise to include funding of $750 million the following year.

The two representatives from the Maryland Association of Counties – William (Bill) R. Valentine, a member of the Allegany County Board of County Commissioners, and the organization’s executive director Michael Sanderson, who sat in at the voting session for Craig L. Rice, a Montgomery County councilman – were the two commission members who abstained from voting on the final report.

“I found it necessary to abstain from that vote due to the lack of estimates for the cost of these proposals that will be shared with local governments,” Valentine wrote. “…Many of our counties have very fragile balanced budgets. Adding millions of dollars of cost to the smaller counties would be devastating.”

The total cost of the commission’s recommendations, after taking into account cost overlaps and savings, amounts to $480 million in fiscal 2020, increasing to $3.8 billion by fiscal 2030, according to the report.

In a news release, the commission noted that the cost increase amounts to an average increase of less than 3 percent a year for the next 10 years.

The press release also noted that the report has been endorsed by two former state superintendents: Nancy Grasmick and David Hornbeck.

“Over more than 40 years, I have worked with governors, legislators, educators, and corporate leaders in 22 states to develop specific policies and funding to promote systemic education change. Without a doubt, the Kirwan Commission’s recommendations are the best,” Hornbeck said in a written statement.

A bill to implement the policy recommendations of the panel has not yet been introduced this legislative session.

One of the panel’s core charges – to re-write state funding formulas – is being taken up by a smaller workgroup, which plans to make a recommendation next fall.

The full report is available here.

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This story was updated to clarify the abstaining votes by Maryland Association of Counties representatives.





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