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Leaders, lawmakers weigh in on Kirwan policy bill

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Shore leaders, lawmakers weigh in on Kirwan policy bill

The Maryland House of Delegates passes "The Blueprint for Maryland's Future" in a 96-41 vote Friday, March 6. Pictured: William “Brit” Kirwan, chairman of the Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education testifies in front of the Senate Budget and Taxation, House Appropriations, and House Ways and Means committees during a joint hearing on “The Blueprint for Maryland’s Future” on Monday, Feb. 17, in Annapolis.

ANNAPOLIS — Debate over proposed funding mechanisms for impending reforms to Maryland’s education system remained at a simmer Monday, Feb. 17, as lawmakers gathered in Annapolis to hear testimony specific to the policy implementation plan outlined by the Kirwan Commission in “The Blueprint for Maryland’s Future.”

The Kirwan Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education was established in 2016 to initiate education reforms in Maryland. It since has increasingly incited a mixture of skepticism and excitement among residents, education players and local governments across Maryland — most of whom believe reform is needed but aren’t sold on who’s going pay for the overhaul.

With the commission having approved its final recommendations in November 2019 after years of work, related legislation is making its way through the General Assembly with the hope of getting lawmakers’ approval and becoming a reality.

Though money talk often seeped into the conversation during Monday’s hearing, joint chairmen of the Senate Budget and Taxation, House Appropriations, and House Ways and Means committees managed to keep the train on its tracks while testifiers verbally dissected the legislation — Senate bill 1000 and its cross-filed House bill 1300. The two similarly intentioned bills, 172 pages each, detail the steps Maryland will take to reach its bold education goals.

Among the proposed steps to meet such goals are: providing early support for young children through vamped-up and widely available pre-kindergarten programs; increasing teacher diversity, preparedness and salary; making improvements to instructional systems; enforcing strict student literacy requirements in English and mathematics; and implementing a strong accountability system to ensure all involved parties are contributing to the state’s educational success.

Cecil County’s education

Cecil County Council member Jackie Gregory, R-5th, was there on behalf of Cecil County. She was invited to speak on a panel of rural communities. Having spent years as an educator, she spoke to the County Council on Tuesday morning at a work session and provided a report from her day in Annapolis.

“The funding has very specific requirements for reporting, very specific requirements for how it’s used,” Gregory said. “It doesn’t necessarily allow us to use funds in the way that we most need them. I’ve seen a lot of changes in education over the years. [...] Each time we just dump billions of dollars into this without addressing some of the core issues. That’s my concern with this again.”

Gregory echoed Cecil County Public Schools Superintendent Jeff Lawson’s remarks — both wary of holes in fiduciary support. Under Kirwan, the county is expected to provide more than $100 million by 2030 to school funding. Gregory said that the county would need to raise property tax to 27 cents, compared to the most recent property tax increase of about 5 percent.

“That’s a pretty big deal,” she said.

Though some may say that the state should pay for its mandates, Gregory made a point.

“In reality, it’s all tax dollars,” she said. “So you’re either going to have you state taxes increased or you’re going to have your local taxes increased to pay for this.”

The current state formula for schools was enacted in 2002, with amendments — “or what the state would call ‘fixes’ along the way,” Lawson said. However, this — and the impending Kirwan bill — may not be directly addressing the needs in Cecil County.

“Cecil County and counties like us rarely have a strong voice with a delegate or at the legislative table to effect these kinds of changes,” Lawson said during his report to the Council on Tuesday.

“It’s hard for us. So these types of things happen to us.”

Kirwan is expected to pass, Gregory said on behalf of the Maryland Association of Counties.

“They feel that they state’s should share the burden of money, not the local governments,” she said.

Accountability concerns

Sen. Addie Eckardt, R-37-Mid-Shore, who is on the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee, raised concerns during Monday’s hearing about the accountability aspect and how the state will measure the impact of policies outlined in the bill.

Eckardt asked Kirwan Commission Chairman William “Brit” Kirwan whether accountability simply meant “compliance to the structure” of the reform policies and said measures of success would be needed.

“What about outcomes? Where in the bill do we address student outcomes?” Eckardt said, adding that student outcomes are “really critical” and it’s important to be realistic about them.

Kirwan responded to Eckardt’s concerns, saying there are “a number of pages” that address outcome measurements in the bill, but it was unclear to which pages he was referring. It appears, though, between pages 60 and 80, the bill details that an Accountability and Implementation Board will be charged with submitting a study by Dec. 1, 2024, on whether “The Blueprint for Maryland’s Future” is being implemented and is achieving its expected outcomes.

But it’s not just accountability Eastern Shore leaders are expressing concerns about — with Kent County Superintendent of Schools Karen Couch striking a chord many education leaders in rural districts have struck: making sure communities with fewer people are heard during the decision-making process.

Focus on rural communities

Couch urged legislators and the Kirwan Commission during the hearing to invite local school boards and governments to the table.

“As you consider amendments, we would ask that you specifically work alongside us, local boards and elected officials, as we balance education funding with other services that are provided to our communities,” Couch said to the committee members.

She said “many counties are putting in large percentages (of money). Others are not.”

“We would like you to consider those jurisdictions that have declining enrollment and other small jurisdictions like Kent,” Couch said. “We are strong advocates (of this legislation), and we ask that we come to the table to work through policy reforms, and also as we look for a timeline and buy-in for the infusion of local funding.”

Others who testified and asked questions during the hearing brought up issues such as a lack of behavioral health programs for students, funding inequities across various school districts and, as one lawmaker noted, whether “throwing money” at a problem would solve it.

Monday marked the first joint hearing for SB1000 and HB1300, and many legislators indicated they would be submitting requests for amendments to the legislation during the coming weeks until the fate of the initiative is determined.

Kirwan asserted during his testimony that the General Assembly’s passage of “The Blueprint for Maryland’s Future” would “elevate the hopes and dreams of today’s and tomorrow’s children.”

“Our children can’t wait. Make Maryland a leader,” he said to the committee members.

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