At the heart of a sweeping plan to improve education in Maryland with billions in added funding is the goal of addressing inequities in schools that serve high numbers of children in poverty — a problem experts in education say is a fundamental one in the United States.
A state commission that has spent three years studying how to make Maryland schools competitive with the world's best found a common problem: The state invests more in schools serving affluent communities than it does on schools in areas with high poverty.
“Kids growing up in poverty need more resources, and so a major portion of our recommendations are aimed at putting the resources into the schools where there are lots of low-income kids and providing them support,” said William Kirwan, who chaired the 25-member commission.
Panel members believe the effort is groundbreaking, because Maryland worked with a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, the National Center on Education and the Economy, to rigorously compare Maryland's public education system with four high-performing ones in other countries to develop five key policy areas designed to work in tandem. The school systems were in Finland, Singapore, Ontario, Canada and Shanghai, China.
John B. King Jr., who served as U.S. education secretary under former President Barack Obama, said it's important the commission is focusing not only on how much to invest, but how to spend the money for the best outcomes.
“Nationally, we consistently are giving the least to the students who need the most,” said King, who now is CEO of The Education Trust, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that works to close opportunity gaps that affect students of color and students from low-income families.
The Maryland panel, known as the Kirwan Commission, focuses on five main policy areas in a plan that state lawmakers will be considering in their annual legislative session, which begins Wednesday. The policy areas include early childhood education like pre-K, teaching and increased teachers' pay, college and career readiness, aid for struggling schools and accountability in implementation.
“It's not one policy,” said state Sen. Bill Ferguson, a Baltimore Democrat and former teacher who served on the commission and is expected to become the state Senate president when the General Assembly convenes. “It's the interdependence of all of the different policies all together that yield an outcome where kids can be competitive in the global economy.”
Linda Darling-Hammond, the president of California's State Board of Education who has researched education policy as the founding president of the Learning Policy Institute, wrote in a report last year that the nation's public schools are among the most inequitably funded of any in the industrialized world, with a system rooted on local property tax bases that are highly unequal.
Only 12 states had progressive funding distributions providing at least 5% more funding to districts in which student poverty was 30% or more as compared to districts where there was little or no poverty, the report found. Of those 12 states, only Delaware, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey and Wyoming funded education at “a strong level of adequacy.”
The Maryland proposal would challenge some local jurisdictions to pay more than they are accustomed for education.
Baltimore, Maryland's largest city, would be required to pay about $329 million more in a decade. However, the city would get much more in state support: about $503 million. Mayor Bernard “Jack” Young already has asked city agencies to reduce their budgets by 5% by 2022 in preparation for paying the city's amount.
The statewide proposal would be phased in over a 10-year period, reaching an additional $4 billion in spending on education a decade from now.
Republican Gov. Larry Hogan says he supports ideas in the proposal, and he has put forth a plan to spend $3.8 billion on school construction over the next five years. He also supports more early childhood education and funding for schools with high numbers of students in poverty. However, he has criticized the commission's overall recommendations for being too expensive — without a plan to pay for them — and he has vowed to oppose major tax increases. He also is pushing for an initiative to create greater accountability for struggling schools.
Kirwan told lawmakers that Maryland's students perform at a mediocre level, and there are large achievement gaps based on income, race, disability and other student groups.
“I think this is a seminal moment for our state, because anyone who looks seriously at the data will see that the quality of education we're giving our young people is on a decline,” Kirwan said. “If we don't change this trajectory, we are not going to have the quality of workforce that the state will need to drive a successful economy.”