By Len Lazarick

Crunch time is coming for the Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education, chaired by former University System Chancellor Brit Kirwan and commonly known as the Kirwan commission,

After nine meetings over the past year, the 24-member commission has heard from dozens of experts and consultants on many aspects of education policy, practice and funding. They’ve spent hours learning how the best performing systems in the world got that way. The commissioners have mostly listened and asked questions, with limited discussion.

Now, it’s time to make some recommendations and decisions for a report due to the governor and legislature in December.

The commission has also scheduled a series of four public hearings around the state beginning Sept. 14 on the Eastern Shore.

Kirwan pep talk

Kirwan gave them a pep talk about the task ahead.

“At the 30,000 foot level, I think there’s fairly broad consensus,” Kirwan said, (a consensus not obvious to an observer). “There are high expectations for the work of this commission.”

“When else will our state take the time to take an in-depth look at our system of education? If [the commission] doesn’t make a difference, an opportunity will be lost.”

“We have a good system of education, we have a lot to be proud about, but we can and we must be better. Good is not good enough in this day and age.”

“We as a group, as we go into this final phase, have got to come together and propose transformational strategies with rigorous accountability and a financing plan that will enable Maryland to have a system that performs as well as any in the world.”

“We have to take a page from the Massachusetts playbook,” a state they’ve heard a lot about, whose students perform better than Maryland’s on standardized tests. “And that is the notion of a grand bargain. We have to accept the notion that to get there’s going to have to be some give.”

A grand bargain

“We want to give our teachers better working conditions. We want to give them better salaries. We want to make this teaching career a real profession. But then teachers will have to accept an evaluation system consistent with a real profession.

“We want to give our principals and superintendents more resources … We want to give them more autonomy. But what they’re doing has got to be in the framework of this commission.”

“This grand bargain has to start right in this room,” Kirwan said. “Many of you represent constituencies…. There’s got to be give and take.” (A list of the commission members and who they represent.)

“At the end of the day, if we have a plan or proposal that overall is going to move the needle, we have to come together and endorse something that will make a real difference in our state.”

“We can’t just allocate more money without accountability,” Kirwan said. ‘”There’s got to be accountability or our recommendations will be dead on arrival.”

Elusive consensus

That consensus may be hard to achieve, as a discussion after Kirwan’s pep talk showed.

In public testimony, representatives of a Baltimore City charter school told of their problems and issues. That produced an argument between commission members who support charter schools, like Chester Finn on the state school board and Buzzy Hettleman, with state senators Paul Pinsky and Richard Madaleno who have resisted the expansion of charter schools proposed by Gov. Larry Hogan.

Other commissioners questioned whether there was enough time scheduled to come up with complete recommendations.

Hearing dates

Here are the proposed hearing dates. More information will be forthcoming on the commission’s website.

  • Sept. 14, 6:30-8:30 p.m., Stevensville Middle School, 610 Main Street, Stevensville, MD 21666.
  • Sept. 28, 6:30-8:30 p.m., Lynx at Frederick High School, 650 Carroll Parkway, Frederick.  
  • Oct. 12, 6:30-8:30 p.m., Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, 1400 W. Cold Spring Lane, Baltimore 21209
  • Oct. 25, 6:30-8:30 p.m., Largo High School, 505 Largo Road, Upper Marlboro, 20774