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Kalman Hettleman: Elected officials and the public must do their school homework in the New Year

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For the New Year, the first wish must be for peace for all people in all nations.

Here at home, my top political wish is for a much better education for our schoolchildren. That’s no surprise to readers of my columns, but here is what may be a shocker: Not only do our schoolchildren need to be better educated: so do the adults, including elected officials and the public, who have the power to make or break the success of the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future.

There is widespread lack of knowledge and understanding about what the Blueprint actually is, and isn’t. And this knowledge gap threatens to keep wishes for the Blueprint’s success from coming true.

But hold on. Have I had too much eggnog? Over the past six years, no subject has received more attention from political officials, educators and the media. And except for former governor Larry Hogan, there’s been little political dissent. The Blueprint’s bold ambitions and initiatives, unprecedented in the U.S., have received national acclaim.

So how can it be that, to borrow an old saying, deep down the understanding of the Blueprint is shallow. Well, consider:

1. The public is generally uninformed about the Blueprint. No person has spent more time speaking around the state on behalf of the Blueprint than William E. “Brit” Kirwan, who headed the commission that drafted it. And he’s “alarmed” by the “huge void” in public understanding, he told me. In 2019, just after Blueprint legislation passed, a Goucher College poll reported that “77 percent [of those polled] have heard or read nothing about [it].”

The fact is that general public approval of the Blueprint masks the reality that voters know very little about what it’s really about and what it will take to achieve it.

2. Misinformation about the cost of the Blueprint has distorted public opinion and political debate.  The price tag, which rises to about $3.8 billion annually by 2033, is commonly cited as an enormous drain on the state treasury and a major cause of the state’s pending revenue shortfall. Yet in fact, as originally projected, the $3.8 billion represents only about a 2 to 3 percent annual increase in education spending and less than a 1 percent annual increase in total spending. That’s hardly a budget-buster or all-out commitment to what is advertised as the state’s highest priority.

Moreover, there is confusion over “full funding” of the Blueprint. Almost everyone in Annapolis, from the governor to legislative leaders, is for it. But “full funding” can mean different things. Paying for the costs embedded in the legislation? Or paying for the higher costs now projected due to inflation and underfunding of major programs?  Annapolis needs to confront the difference.

3. Don’t believe the highly touted claim that, by the time the Blueprint sunsets in 2033, the great majority of schoolchildren, predominantly those who are poor and of color, will achieve proficiency in reading and math. That’s wishful thinking.

The original intent of the Kirwan Commission was to draft legislation to fulfill the state constitutional mandate that all children be enabled to achieve such proficiency. But that mission was downgraded in the face of political pressure to hold down the costs. Now, the Blueprint Accountability and Implementation Board is stuck on how to estimate reasonable expectations for student success. Any credible estimate will show that many, if not most, vulnerable students will still be left behind.

4. Another reason why the public officials and the public know so little is that there has been so little reporting of implementation of the Blueprint so far. The Blueprint and the AIB call for hundreds and hundreds of reports, and the AIB is required to issue an annual report describing progress, revealing problems, and making recommendations for changes. But this hasn’t happened.

All this lack of information and misinformation, unless corrected, will make it politically impossible to mobilize political and public support to sustain, much less strengthen, the Blueprint. In November, Eric Leudtke, chief legislative officer for Gov. Wes Moore (D), was asked at a meeting of the Blueprint Coalition whether the governor was considering any tax increases to boost Blueprint funding. Nothing this year, he replied, but maybe in 2025. “The public is not there right now,” he said. 

But what’s the strategy to get us there? So far, the governor and legislative leaders have not publicly recognized the fiscal and policy problems that cry out for attention. And Blueprint oversight by the General Assembly is splintered among two House and two Senate committees, making it extremely difficult to master the Blueprint’s complexity.

The AIB has commendably completed a survey and adopted steps to build public support for the Blueprint, but it’s mainly cheerleading which won’t turn the political tide.

On the other hand, Gov. Moore has pointed to a way forward. He recently said, ”Trust demands transparency and truth, even if it’s hard.” He was talking about transportation issues but his words apply to public education. The public must be trusted with the balanced truth about what’s going well with the Blueprint, what’s not, and what it will take to strengthen it. .

The AIB is duty-bound to provide this information in its annual reports. It must team up with the Maryland State Department of Education to create a process in which the hundreds of reports due under the Blueprint are tracked, monitored and analyzed, and changes are proposed. Formal outside evaluations will be too late.

Courageous educational and political leadership must then follow. The path to closing the knowledge gap and renewal of the Blueprint will be hard, but the alternative is to renege on its promises.

Let’s wish that doesn’t happen.


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Kalman Hettleman: Elected officials and the public must do their school homework in the New Year