This column is running in the December issue of The Business Monthly serving Howard and Anne Arundel counties.
By Len Lazarick
As battle lines harden over how much reform of public schools in Maryland will cost and who will pay for it, the argument has become just about money, and not the scores of moving parts in a comprehensive proposal that would drastically change education here.
Lost in arguing about the billions more the changes will cost state and local taxpayers is the key fifth part of the recommendations from the Kirwan Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education (p.122). It spells out in detail how a new super oversight board will hold the school systems accountable for how the money is spent.
Over and over again during the three years of the commission’s work, Chairman Brit Kirwan, former chancellor of Maryland’s university system who led the reform efforts, emphasized that they can’t be asking for billions more for K-12 education without a strong, credible accountability structure.
That was a key element missing in the last major infusion of state aid to public schools – the only major spending mandate in the state constitution, by the way.
Accountability missing in Thornton
Who says there was a lack of accountability in the so-called Thornton aid? For one, Alvin Thornton, the man who chaired the commission that got the funding passed back in 2002, says Kirwan.
For another, that’s what the commission heard from its primary consultant — Marc Tucker, president of the National Center on Education and the Economy. His group studied the top performing systems school systems around the world that were the model for the Kirwan Commission recommendations.
Last year, Tucker told the commission: “I think Thornton failed to deliver the improvement in student performance that its authors envisioned because no one was held accountable.” He went on, “Maryland now ends up with one of the most expensive state systems in the United States but only average student performance.”
“Kirwan will fail if the same mistakes are made again,” Tucker said.
Md. schools not the best
Sorry to say Marylanders were sold a bill of goods when school leaders and legislators touted the Education Week report card that said Maryland schools were the best in the country.
Students in Maryland schools were never the top performers in standardized tests – those in Massachusetts and New Jersey were, but Bethesda-based Education Week only counted student outcomes as 20% of the grade.
As Kirwan has repeatedly stressed, based on worldwide standardized tests in reading, math and science, the United States is in the middle of the pack among other countries, and Maryland is in the middle of the pack among the states.
In an interview at The Business Monthly last month, Brit Kirwan insisted that he has assurances from top legislative leaders that “they bought into this accountability structure,” allowing an independent board of outside experts to withhold funding to school systems that aren’t implementing the Kirwan commission recommendations. Among those leaders are new House Speaker Adrienne Jones and incoming Senate President Bill Ferguson, who both served on the commission.
“A credible accountability structure — it’s important to me,” says Kirwan. “My credibility is on the line, if there is any backing away from the accountability.”
Business wants accountability
Don Manekin, part of a Strong Schools group trying to get the business community to back the recommendations, says that every business group they’ve talked to wants to know “how do we make sure that this investment is being accounted for.”
“We can’t do this piecemeal,” says Manekin. The whole Kirwan package must be implemented, including accountability.
Parts of the Kirwan Commission recommendations are much more popular than others. Among them are universal pre-kindergarten for four-year-olds, and enhanced career and technical education leading to a certification in a chosen field.
There is also extra aid proposed for students who are falling behind, generally from lower-income families.
The most complicated and most expensive of the recommendations is enhancing the recruitment, training and retention of school teachers to raise their status and salaries comparable to other professionals like accountants and architects. This is part of a career ladder to counter the difficulty of recruiting teachers and the departure of half the new teachers in their first five years of teaching.
Lack of accountability irks Hogan
The lack of accountability in the current system in which the state provides $6.7 billion to public school systems has irked Gov. Larry Hogan for years. He has proposed more accountability, but he also opposes any new taxes to pay for the Kirwan Commission recommendations.
Brit Kirwan says he “absolutely” has commitments from key legislators that accountability will be part of the final package they hope to pass in the upcoming session. That is unlikely to persuade Hogan to change his long-standing opposition to tax hikes.
Will all the folks that like all or most of the Kirwan Commission plans – like the teachers union that loves a sharp jump in salaries — be as supportive of a super board that can withhold increased funding when school systems balk at some of the reforms?
While the Kirwan Commission modeled much of its proposals on high performing school systems in other parts of the world, it did not even attempt to replicate one of the key components of systems in places such as Singapore, Shanghai and Finland.
Those countries have strongly centralized authority over all aspects of education, including a single education minister in charge of everything from universities down to kindergartens. Here in Maryland, as in the rest of the United States, we have diffuse responsibility among 24 different school boards and superintendents, a state superintendent and Board of Education, and splintered university governance. Not to mention the legislators, who love to meddle in education policy, as do the governors.
Can Brit Kirwan pull this off? This is a legacy issue for him, but given the competing stakeholders in the process, there are miles to go before he sleeps.