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He Headed a Commission to Improve Education in 2002. Here’s What He Thinks About the Latest One

Alvin Thornton in Annapolis this week. Photo by Bruce DePuyt

Before there was the Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education, there was the Commission on Education Finance, Equity and Excellence.

Just as the former became known as the Kirwan Commission because its chairman is former University of Maryland Chancellor William E. “Brit” Kirwan, the latter won the handle “The Thornton Commission” because its leader was former Howard University political science professor and Prince George’s County Board of Education Chairman Alvin Thornton.

This week a Kirwan Commission workgroup adopted an ambitious education funding formula. The panel’s final recommendations, set to be voted on in the coming weeks, are expected to dominate the 2020 session of the Maryland General Assembly.

Thornton was asked to serve on the workgroup because of his experience leading a similar effort – to boost educational achievement in the state – in 2002. 

He spoke with Maryland Matters after Tuesday’s voting session. This Q&A has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Maryland Matters: What thoughts do you have about today’s vote?

Alvin Thornton: Being chair of Thornton and Bridge to Excellence, this is a welcomed next step. First of all, you have broad consensus. When you see a consensus between Montgomery County and Baltimore City, between Montgomery County and Prince George’s County, and most of the smaller Eastern Shore counties, that’s a major step. For me, politically, that’s what I wanted to see. 

Then when you see the commitment to an increased funding level, with an increased requirement to the counties mandated — like special education, concentrations of poverty — that also is a major next-step for me. 

The Kirwan workgroup recommendations are clearly going to be debated and modified at the commission level, and in the General Assembly, but this consensus will be powerful impetus for what we have to do. 

MM: The recent Goucher Poll found that a sizable majority of Marylanders are willing to pay more in taxes if the proceeds go to education. Did those numbers influence the workgroup and could it impact the General Assembly?

Thornton: That poll was very, very important. In 2002, there was a broad-based popular expectation for a well-funded, accountable public school system. When the Goucher Poll was released, it lessened the ability of partisan, geographic and racial politics to dictate decision-making, because leaders have to function within that popular request for adequately funded public education.

That means the governor will be less able to stampede people into an anti-tax thing. That means that Democrats who are on the fence will have some backbone, because the people are with it. So that poll is critically important. 

What I’m asking people to do is not stampede the people of Maryland away from what they want for their children. The poll says they’re willing to share more of their resources with public education and leadership needs to act upon that, and I’m sure that it will.   

MM: The governor is planning a fundraiser to raise money to fight any tax increase. And he’s started to refer to the Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education in press statements as the Kirwan Tax Hike Commission. What’s your take on that? 

Thornton: We will not allow public education to be “Trumpatized” in Maryland. We will not allow the negative, alienating politics represented in Trumpism to be brought into Maryland. And we should not confuse a gubernatorial election success as an indication of what the people of Maryland want for the education of their children. 

That is dark money stampeding the people of Maryland away from the interests of their children. I don’t think our gubernatorial leadership wants to be associated with that. And those who are advising that should step back. Because it’s not in our best interests and it’s not in his best interests. 

MM: This issue will dominate the upcoming General Assembly session. Do lawmakers give the Kirwan plan the green light? 

Thornton: We did it before and I’m convinced — having led the effort before — that we’re going to do it again. I would not have agreed to serve on this workgroup all summer long and through the fall if I did not have high confidence that the consensus that we arrived at 17 years ago would be repeated again. Number one, because the people of Maryland are willing to share resources with their children for a well-funded, accountable education. And when it comes to education, the people of Maryland are not partisan. They are not. We are the wealthiest state in the nation and people know it’s immoral to underfund education.

And it’s unconstitutional. We know that people are not going to sit around, they’re going to sue…It will divide us in court and politically. The people of Maryland don’t want to do that. I don’t think the governor, ultimately, will want to do that. And I’m sure the General Assembly leadership won’t. 

Thornton did not offer a specific funding source for the Kirwan Commission’s ambitious $4 billion plan, and it’s not clear how the General Assembly will pay for the panel’s policy mandates. 

What is clear is that Hogan will continue to hammer away at the cost of implementation.

On Tuesday he released this statement: 

“Education is my top priority, which is why we have provided historically high funding five years in a row, created a lockbox to require an additional $4.4 billion investment into our schools, and proposed a $2 billion school construction investment—the largest in Maryland history. No governor has ever invested more in our schools. 

“I have tremendous respect for Dr. Kirwan and have supported many of his well-meaning recommendations, some of which can be phased in over the next several years. Unfortunately, the Kirwan Tax Hike Commission is hellbent on spending billions more than we can afford, and legislators are refusing to come clean about where the money is going to come from. Even after more than three years of meetings, there is still no clear plan whatsoever for how either the state or the counties will pay this massive price tag.

“We cannot recklessly expand the state’s deficit to $18.7 billion, as these proposals require. And we will not impose billions in crippling state and local tax increases on Marylanders.

“Our students, parents, and teachers deserve more accountability and better outcomes, not pie-in-the-sky unfunded spending proposals.”

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He Headed a Commission to Improve Education in 2002. Here’s What He Thinks About the Latest One