Norman Augustine: Don’t Waste a Once-in-a-Generation Opportunity to Boost Schools

Norman R. Augustine. Photo via U.S. Department of Energy

At this moment Maryland is facing a once-in-a-generation opportunity to strengthen our public schools and make Maryland more competitive for jobs and business — and that is good news for all Marylanders.

As a long-time Maryland businessperson myself, I have had a vested interest in ensuring Maryland students receive a world-class education — as do all members of the business community and the millions of Marylanders who benefit from public education. The “Blueprint for Maryland’s Future,” prepared by a commission led by the former chancellor of the University System of Maryland, Brit Kirwan, is being finalized by lawmakers this week. It will enhance teacher support of students, increase school funding, and strengthen accountability — all while equipping Maryland’s workforce to meet the demands of a rapidly changing economy.

Almost every Marylander knows that our schools are our greatest competitive asset, but the reality is that we have been falling behind. Surveys indicate that fewer than 40% of those who actually graduate from our high schools are deemed to be career or college ready. Only a few years ago, Maryland schools ranked among the best in the nation, but now half of Maryland teachers must focus part of their attention on a second job — just to get by.

Virtually no three-year-olds in our state have access to public prekindergarten of the type that is becoming increasingly common elsewhere. Facts such as these underscore the challenge for parents and businesses who are considering whether to locate here — and to help grow the state’s economy.

While the challenges are demanding, the solutions proposed in the Blueprint are cause for optimism. The result of three years of exhaustive research by the Kirwan Commission is a series of recommendations that, if fully funded, can make Maryland home to schools that are competitive with the very best in the world.

Perhaps most compelling to business leaders and those seeking jobs is the Blueprint’s approach to revolutionizing Maryland’s workforce. The brilliance of the Kirwan recommendations lies in their balanced approach to workforce development through our colleges and four-year universities as well as through strategic partnerships with high schools, community colleges, and vocational trade and apprenticeship programs.

As an example, consider Soller’s Point High School in eastern Baltimore County, where students can gain certification in vocational trades in conjunction with their high school diploma. The Blueprint would take those kinds of opportunities statewide, connecting schools and employers so that upon graduation from high school students can continue onto college or directly obtain good jobs with steady incomes. That’s a win, not only for our State’s workers but also for Maryland businesses that seek to hire from within the communities they serve.

Furthermore, the Blueprint introduces essential accountability. It creates an actionable School Oversight Board possessing the authority and resources to deploy support teams throughout Maryland, working directly with struggling schools and their administrators to make necessary improvements and to demand results.

If passed, this would be the strongest schools oversight law in Maryland history. It gives our deserving teachers, who are the key to supporting our students and assuring accountability, a much-warranted raise. Allowing our educators to focus on their students full time means more one-on-one time with students, especially those students needing extra help, thereby enhancing outcomes and making the most of every school day.

Parents and educators will begin to see the benefits of this bill immediately, but what of the long-term effects? A recent study by the Sage Policy Group makes clear that Maryland will enjoy a substantial return on its financial investment in the report’s recommendations starting in the second year of operation. By the time the first cohort of children following implementation of the recommendations graduates from high school, Maryland’s return on investment will exceed the amount being invested annually because those former students will have higher lifetime incomes and reduced reliance on public assistance programs.

For these reasons, and many more, it is in the interest of every Marylander to ensure that the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future is passed and funded in full. Thirty of the state’s business leaders have already signed a letter asking lawmakers to adopt the recommendations during this legislative session, and parents, students and educators across the state are joining together to make their voices heard.

The remaining question is whether our lawmakers will make this much-needed investment to move Maryland forward. We are on the brink of an enormous opportunity. It is time for our leaders to embrace it.

Simply stated, Maryland’s future depends on it.

— NORMAN R. AUGUSTINE

The writer is the retired chairman and CEO of Lockheed Martin Corp.