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Maryland’s 20-year education reform journey from ‘The Bridge to Excellence’ to the Blueprint

Alvin Thornton
Courtesy of Alvin THornton
Alvin Thornton

About two decades before the sweeping educational reform known as the Blueprint for Maryland's Future there was a different commission that laid the foundation.

This was even before what was known as Kirwan. It was the Maryland’s Commission on Education Finance, Equity, and Excellence also known as the Thornton Commission, named after chair Alvin Thornton.

In a recent interview with WYPR, Thornton shared how the Blueprint’s funding formula was created.

The Blueprint for Maryland’s Future will be implemented throughout the next 10 years and reform the state’s public education system. Policy aspects of the Blueprint are based on recommendations from the Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education or the Kirwan Commission formed in 2016. The primary goal is to address funding inequity and prepare students for careers.

The main goal of the Thornton Commission was to align Maryland’s performance expectations with adequate funding.

“We must do our best to fund our children equally and equitably. The conclusion that came out of the Thornton commission was that we have an obligation to fund our children in that manner,” Thornton said.

The Bridge to Excellence Act developed by the commission set the standard in Maryland for an equitable education funding model and how education should be financed. Thornton said the funding formula was based on the ideas of the Caucus of Black School Board Members, which advocated for adequate funding and additional resources for Black students in the state.

The law was passed during the 2002 legislative session, but not without a fight.

Similar to when former Gov. Larry Hogan vetoed the Blueprint in 2020, Thornton said it was a challenge for the Bridge to Excellence Act to make it through the legislative process and education advocates rallied at Maryland’s State House.

There was resistance because prior to the legislation, the idea of equitably funding education was not practiced in the state.

"We flooded Annapolis with thousands of people. Parents, and students to demand that The Bridge to Excellence statute be passed,” Thornton said.

When it comes to education policies school districts are required to fund a portion of the law. This often creates a financial burden for school districts with a smaller tax base.

Thornton said the funding formula is set up to help supplement funding, through a concept called “weights.”

That means the number of students who qualify because of demographic information such as learning disabilities or language skills, will determine how much funding the local system receives from the state.

School systems will receive a base amount of $8,310 per pupil during the 2022-2023 school year, according to The Blueprint’s website.

For example, if a student requires special education and lives in a low-income area, or whose first language is not English the school may receive additional funding.

Some school districts will face financial stress over the course of Blueprint implementation, according to the Local Fiscal Impact Report by Maryland’s Department of Legislative Services.

Baltimore City and counties such as Caroline, Kent, Talbot, Cecil and Prince George’s are projected to need the largest increase in local funding, the report states.

While funding for the Bridge to Excellence waned after the Great Recession in 2008, Thornton said he is hopeful that funding the Blueprint will be different, especially considering Gov. Wes Moore’s commitment to education.

So far, Gov. Moore has earmarked $500 million to fully fund The Blueprint for Maryland’s Future until 2025.

To continue funding the law for the intended 10 years, Moore and legislators will have to find alternative sources of revenue or use money from the general fund.

Moore’s Chief Legislative Affairs Officer, Eric Luedtke, shared during the Jan 30 town hall hosted by the Maryland Education Coalition, the other option is to use money from the general fund.

The key to success of the Blueprint is not just about political will but also willingness to adequately put money behind such an effort, Thornton, the former commission chair said.

Togetherness is crucial “because otherwise, the political differences based on party, race and geographical location will be injected in order to unravel the consensus that we call the Blueprint," he said.

Editor's Note: An earlier version of this news story inaccurately described the date when the commission was formed.

Zshekinah Collier is WYPR’s 2022-2023 Report for America Corps Member, where she covers Education. @Zshekinahgf
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