It’s up to the Kirwan Commission to revamp and improve school funding statewide
Named after its chair, former University System of Maryland Chancellor Brit Kirwan, the Commission’s 25 members are working to rewrite Maryland’s school funding formula. They are scheduled to deliver recommendations to the General Assembly in December.
Since legislators passed the Bridge to Excellence in Public Schools Act (also known as the Thornton Plan) in 2002, Maryland has provided historic levels of school funding. But the plan was never meant to accommodate current levels of child poverty. The percentage of Maryland public school students living in poverty has more than doubled since 1990 — from 22% to 45% — putting our statewide student population on the verge of becoming majority low-income. When you consider those increased needs together with the higher standards and new programs implemented over the last five years alone, our current levels of education spending fall short for too many students.
MSEA worked with the General Assembly to create the Kirwan Commission in 2016 and now, David Helfman, MSEA’s executive director, advocates for MSEA members in the commission’s discussions.
In December, the Kirwan Commission received a report from national school funding experts recommending an increase of $2.9 billion statewide ($1.9 billion in state funding and $1 billion in county funding). According to their analysis — based on conversations with Maryland educators and recent academic research — that’s how much more spending is necessary for schools to meet the needs of every child.
The recommendations would provide important gains in resources. But how those increases break down varies quite a bit. In St. Mary’s County, schools would see a 44% increase over current spending (an additional $78 million) while Howard would see an 8% increase over current spending ($56 million more). The largest step up in total dollars would go to Prince George’s, which would receive a $600 million boost.
The Thornton Commission developed a plan that in the early 2000s was considered a national model for equitable school funding — and it was remarkably successful. Following its implementation, Maryland schools placed first in Education Week’s state rankings from 2009–2013, first in the College Board’s Advanced Placement performance rankings from 2007–2016, and second in fourth-grade reading improvement and fourth in fourth-grade math improvement on NAEP from 2003 to 2013.
But just like every other state in the country, Maryland had to make some serious budget compromises in the aftermath of the Great Recession. While Maryland did better than most states in avoiding massive education cuts, the state froze, then capped, the amount of funding increases allowed for a number of years — which had a compounding effect in the Thornton Plan. Under Thornton, each year’s increase, due to inflation and enrollment growth, is based on the previous year’s allocation. The aggregate effect of this has ballooned the underfunding of our schools to nearly $3 billion.
Members of the Kirwan Commission want to make recommendations on both what the increased number should be and how they should make this new investment.
The funding experts who came up with the $2.9 billion recommendation also suggested some possible strategies, including: decreasing class sizes; increasing instructional staff; building in more planning time for teachers; and hiring more school counselors, nurses, and behavioral specialists. They also built in the implementation of pre-kindergarten for all four-year-olds to their overall recommendation. Other experts have testified in front of the commission and stressed the need to invest directly in the education professions by increasing salaries and building up training programs based on successful international models.
These conversations present a rare opportunity to accomplish large-scale improvements to working conditions for educators and learning opportunities for our students.