Warning of Anti-Reform Forces, Kirwan Tells Rally ‘We Must Band Together’

William E. "Brit" Kirwan addresses a rally of supporters of the "Blueprint for Maryland's Future" outside the state House office building in Annapolis last month. Photo by Bruce DePuyt

As the General Assembly’s money committees engaged in a day-long hearing on education funding, hundreds of parents, students and teachers rallied near the State House Monday in support of a proposal to pump billions of dollars into Maryland classrooms.

Speakers complained of overcrowded classrooms, crumbling buildings, and subpar academic and extracurricular offerings — and they urged lawmakers to back the recommendations crafted by the Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education, known as the Kirwan Commission after its chairman, former University of Maryland chancellor William E. “Brit” Kirwan.

The event was billed as a “pep rally,” and it was organized by Strong Schools Maryland, an organization representing parents and community groups; the state teachers union; and the Maryland Fair Funding Coalition, an education advocacy group.

The rally was held on a sliver of grass between an office building where many state lawmakers have their offices and the Legislative Services building, site of a hearing on the “Blueprint for Maryland’s Future,” the bill that seeks to implement the commission’s recommendations.

Saidah Ervin, a middle school student in Baltimore City, told the crowd she has “amazing teachers.” But she said a lack of funding has had a “major impact” on her education.

“Our public schools buildings are falling apart,” she said. “Our schools have extremely outdated textbooks and in some classes we don’t have textbooks at all.”

“I stand here dreaming of a better tomorrow,” she told the rally. “A school that has classrooms full of the latest technology, classrooms led by a diverse group of professional educators. A school with clubs that have the funding to succeed.”

Between speakers, the crowd chanted “Our kids can’t wait,” and many attendees wore blue shirts with that slogan emblazoned on them.

Shannon Fleming-Bray, whose children attend Roland Park Elementary Middle School in Baltimore City, traveled to Annapolis to take part in the rally. She said the state’s education system “is suffering because of the choices we’re making.”

“I have a fifth-grader with 33 kids in her class and a second-grader with 30,” she added. “Every year there is a question of what we have to cut in order to make the budget work.”

Kirwan drew loud cheers when he addressed the crowd.

Banging the lectern for emphasis, he said the legislation being debated in Annapolis — House Bill 1300 and Senate Bill 1000 — represented “a once in a generation opportunity… to transform our schools.”

Kirwan said the funding boost, curriculum improvements, accountability measures and other reforms would “ensure that every child in every ZIP code has the support they need — from birth to graduation — to pursue the American dream.”

He also warned of “powerful forces out there that will do everything they can to erode the bill, take support and promises from our teachers and schools, and compromise the hopes and dreams of our children. We must not let this happen,” he thundered.

Speaking to reporters after his remarks, Kirwan said, “I find that terribly upsetting” that lawmakers and others would want to “change the provisions in the bill and take money out of the bill and lessen the impact that it could have.”

He said his biggest fear is that lawmakers will only partially fund the panel’s recommendations, though he claimed to be optimistic that won’t happen.

“I just can’t imagine how responsible individuals would want to do things that would prevent us from building a high-quality workforce, to giving every kid a chance for success in life, to make Maryland stand out as a national leader,” he added.

While education routinely ranks as a top priority in Maryland, some county officials across the state have reacted with alarm to the potential increases in school aid they would have to fund to access Kirwan benefits.

Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) has denounced the price tag of the reform plan, which is estimated to approach $4 billion over a decade, split roughly between the state and local governments.

A television reporter asked about claims “from Republicans in Annapolis” that fully funding the recommendations “would cost Maryland families thousands of dollars.”

“That is so ridiculous,” Kirwan snapped. “That is irresponsible for people to talk that way. There is no evidence whatsoever. … The leaders of the General Assembly have even said they’ll do this without any across-the-board tax increase.”

When adjusted for regional cost of living differences, Kirwan said, Maryland ranks 19th in the country in education spending. The recommendations in the bill would move the state to seventh.

“This is affordable,” he said. “We are the wealthiest state in the union. … We have such funding inequities in our schools. Too many kids are being left behind. To me it’s almost a moral issue.”

Four legislative committees were holding a joint hearing on the measure on Monday afternoon. With 100 witnesses signed up to testify, the session was expected to last at least five hours.

After the hearing room filled to capacity, families fanned out across the Capitol complex to lobby individual legislators.

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Bruce DePuyt
Bruce DePuyt spent nearly three decades on local television, including 14 years as executive producer and host of News Talk on NewsChannel 8 in the Washington, D.C., area. He has served as reporter, anchor and producer/host of 21 This Week in Montgomery County and as reporter/anchor at NBC affiliate WVIR-TV in Charlottesville, VA. He's a regular contributor to WTOP (103.5 FM) and frequently moderates community and political events.