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State Lawmakers Begin Work on Kirwan School Reforms

Rachel Baye

State lawmakers began work Monday on a highly anticipated package of sweeping education reforms that reflects recommendations by the Kirwan Commission. Hundreds of teachers, activists and local government officials came to Annapolis to testify or show their support for the bill.

The bill is called the “Blueprint for Maryland’s Future,” and like a blueprint, it tries to provide a detailed outline of how the state should overhaul its school system.

“With these bills, you can take action that will begin the transformation of our school system from one that is failing way too many of our children into one that gives every child in every zipcode a chance to realize his or her full potential,” former University System of Maryland Chancellor William “Brit” Kirwan told lawmakers Monday during a rare joint hearing before four legislative committees — two in the House and two in the Senate. Kirwan led the commission whose recommendations were used to write the legislation.


The plan calls for large increases in state and local school spending, phased in over 10 years. At the end of the phase-in period, annual combined state and local school spending will have gone up by roughly $4 billion.


The money covers teacher salary increases; an expansion of publicly funded pre-kindergarten; and health and other support services for students living in poverty. It also pays for staff dedicated to helping local school systems meet the higher academic standards the bill creates.


House Speaker Adrienne Jones opened the hearing by laying out why Maryland needs the proposed reforms. 


“Maryland students are struggling to compete among their peers internationally. Achievement gaps based on income, race and disability aren’t closing. We’re losing good teachers to better-paying industries. And the majority of our high school graduates aren’t college and career ready,” Jones said.


The hearing was the first chance anyone has had to weigh in on the 172-page bill.


Eight county executives were among those who urged lawmakers to approve the legislation.


“We must act. That fact is undeniable,” said Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski. “We need to expand early childhood education, address real disparities in educational outcomes for our young people, and address educator recruitment and retention.”


Baltimore City Mayor Jack Young told lawmakers about two teen boys who missed more than 100 days of school in a year without anyone in the school system noticing. Both ended up murdered. Young said he blames the city’s poor school system for their deaths.


“When people ask me why is Kirwan so important, I say it’s because for some of our young people having the right support is literally a matter of life and death,” Young said.


He said Baltimore is “all in” when it comes to this policy proposal. However, he warned that Baltimore’s share of the cost may be too much for the city’s taxpayers to bear. Legislative analysts say that at the end of a10-year phase-in period, Baltimore would be on the hook for $340 million more each year than it currently spends on schools.


“This amount is simply beyond our current capacity,” Young said. “A contribution of that size represents nearly a quarter of the city’s non-discretionary budget.”


The bill’s $4-billion price tag is at the core of Republicans’ criticism of the bill. 


In a Facebook post Monday, Gov. Larry Hogan warned that passing the bill would lead to “billions in state and local tax hikes.” 


Several Republican legislators echoed those concerns at the hearing. 


“Can some of this great stuff that you’re talking about not be implemented with what we’re already spending, which again I emphasize is billions and billions of dollars, one, and two, if not, what are we currently doing wrong with the money because it’s producing such mediocre if not just poor results?” asked Baltimore County Del. Nino Mangione.


Democratic leaders say that the first few years of the 10-year plan are paid for, a point Jones underscored at the start of the hearing.


“The first three years of this plan are paid for,” she said, repeating it for emphasis.


For the rest of the plan, Jones and other Democrats have pointed to several possible revenue sources, including legalizing and taxing online sports betting. They say they don't plan to raise sales or property taxes to pay for the plan.


Several legislators also questioned whether the bill does enough to hold school districts accountable for how they spend the additional money. 


Kirwan assured them it does.


“We cannot ask the citizens of the state to invest additional money like this unless we can assure them that we’re going to get results, so this ties the money to results,” Kirwan said. 


The bill is likely to see many changes before it makes it to the House and Senate floors.

Rachel Baye is a senior reporter and editor in WYPR's newsroom.
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