Kirwan Commission Blesses Education Funding Formula, Rollout of Reforms

William E. "Brit" Kirwan. File photo

The Kirwan Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education ended with a standing ovation on Thursday ― but there will be plenty more work to do in the upcoming legislative session.

With some reservations, 19 members of the commission voted in favor of putting forward a 10-year multibillion-dollar education reform plan and a new state education funding formula to support it. Three members of the commission ― citing financial and other concerns ― voted against the package. Three others were absent at the time of the vote.

The commission’s proposals for phasing in the reforms and the proposed funding formula will move forward to the General Assembly for further consideration once the session begins Jan. 8.

“This is maybe the best education reform package that has been produced by any state in this country in the history of this country,” House Majority Leader Eric G. Luedtke (D-Montgomery), a former teacher, said of the commission’s proposal.

Reforms proposed by the Kirwan Commission include expanding career and early education programs, increasing salaries and other supports for state teachers, and providing additional resources in schools with high concentrations of poverty.

Under a newly proposed education formula that a majority of the commission voted for on Thursday, state education funding is expected to steadily increase over the next decade until an additional $2.77 billion in state aid would go to schools in 2030. County budgets would also increase during that time period, up to a cumulative $1.23 billion annually.

Maryland Budget Secretary David R. Brinkley was one of three members who voted against the recommendation. He cited concerns about long-term funding for the proposal, as well as disappointment that the commission hadn’t prioritized reforms to guide state spending in the event of an economic downturn.

Brinkley also noted that several counties are worried about how they’ll come up with the local share of the new funding formula.

The other commission members to cast no votes were Sen. Mary Beth Carozza (R-Lower Shore) and Queen Anne’s County Commissioner Jack N. Wilson Jr. (R).

Karen M. Couch, superintendent of Kent County Public Schools and a representative of other county superintendents to the commission, also shared concerns about how some counties will afford the reforms, but she nevertheless voted in favor of the proposal. She asked legislators in Annapolis to consider adding in protections to help smaller counties which may struggle to increase revenues to meet new local funding requirements.

Montgomery County Councilman Craig L. Rice (D), who has touted the commission’s work at meetings across the country and considers the policy recommendations “great,” said he nevertheless harbors reservations about how some counties will pay for the plan and whether they’ll receive fair funding or have flexibility in implementing reform.

“My vote of yes is not just a simple yes and saying that everything is right, but yes in the assumption that there still will be things that will be fixed” in the General Assembly, Rice said.

Scott Dorsey, CEO at Merritt Properties, warned that legislators should not promise generational reforms without taking funding for them just as seriously. He encouraged lawmakers to cross party lines and to embrace ideas together to move the reforms forward.

“We need to be very intentional. We need to create the economic growth in this state to fund this. It just won’t happen by itself,” Dorsey said. “…I’m going to have faith that the legislature and the administration will do the things that they need to do to make sure that we don’t fail on our promise to the people of Maryland.”

After the vote, Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) issued a statement lamenting that the commission had not identified funding sources to support the proposed reforms ― though legislative leaders have said that was not the commission’s task and promise to have revenue proposals come January.

“Local leaders agree with me — they will not support the billions in crippling state and local tax increases that would be required,” Hogan said in a statement. “Some good ideas have been discussed, but the commission mostly focused on simply increasing spending, rather than real accountability measures and better results for our children.”

Democrats have challenged Hogan’s assertions about broadly applied tax increases, but have not publicly released their plans for raising revenues to cover the reforms.

Sen. Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City), his party’s nominee to become Senate president in January, said there were 48 days until the start of the General Assembly session and he hoped that legislative leaders and Hogan could work to find common ground until then.

“At the end of the day, the success of Maryland’s kids and the success of our economic future is not a Republican issue, it’s not a Democratic issue, it’s a Maryland issue. And all of us are in this together,” Ferguson said.

House Appropriations Chairwoman Maggie L. McIntosh (D-Baltimore City) said a number of revenue options will be considered next legislative session, but big increases may not be necessary. A bill passed last year to tax online retail sales has so far generated more money than anticipated and the “education lockbox” passed by voters in 2018 is now dedicating casino revenues in the state to education spending.

Another option may be to modernize Maryland’s sales taxes by adding downloadable online services such as e-books, McIntosh said. “It’s a new economy,” she said.

In future years, the legislature could legalize and tax marijuana sales, she said, though that’s not likely in 2020.

Nevertheless, McIntosh said the legislature is likely to consider a number of smaller revenue changes over time, rather than a single large tax increase.

“What was adopted in there today may not require much more new revenue if our economy stays good and healthy,” she said.

McIntosh said her time on the commission and a funding formula workgroup produced some of the best work she’s ever done in her career in the House of Delegates.

William E. “Brit” Kirwan, the former chancellor of the University System of Maryland, echoed the sentiment, calling the commission’s recommendations the capstone to his long career in education in the state.

Members of the commission and the audience in the hearing room gave a standing ovation for his work at the end of the meeting.

“It’s not perfect. But it’s damn good,” Kirwan said of the plan.

Morgan Showalter, the only current teacher on the commission, shared a message to students in the state, particularly to his in West Baltimore:

“We see you. We love you. And we did this for you,” he said. “We did this for your children and for your children’s children.”

[email protected]