Kirwan briefs lawmakers on report’s education policy and funding recommendations

Lawmakers in Annapolis on Thursday had their first opportunity to be formally briefed and to ask questions about the major education policy and funding report recently finalized by the Kirwan Commission, a state education commission chaired by William Kirwan.

The commission’s ambitious report calls for $3.8 billion a year in added funding to support recommendations that touch on everything from teacher salaries to early childhood education in what Kirwan called “a carefully quilted package of initiatives” on Thursday. The report makes extensive policy recommendations and total funding recommendations determined over the course of two years, but the report does not include recommendations for how the cost would be split between local districts and the state.

“The Commission feels very strongly this is not pick and choose your favorite policy area,” Kirwan warned. “If you pick them apart you won’t get the results you know you will get based on what high performers do.”

Some of the initial concerns voiced Thursday by senators in the joint Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee and the Budget and Taxes Committee meeting included those they are hearing from their local school systems: fears the recommendations would become unfunded mandates, questions about the impact of the recommendations on more rural areas of the state, and most of all, questions about how much of the cost burden would fall on individual school systems.

A small working group is to meet this summer to suggest a division of cost between local districts and the state. Those recommendations will be presented to the full Kirwan Commission, and then presented to legislators in the fall.

With budget season ramping up in local districts, Frederick County Public Schools staff continue to estimate county and state funding without any details about the amount of money they can expect to receive as a result of the Kirwan Commission’s report or the mandates they may need to fulfill using their existing funding.

One of the recommendations that could be challenging for more rural parts of the state to meet, according to Sen. Jack Bailey (R-District 29), is the mandate to offer free, quality prekindergarten to all 4-year-olds and preschool for 3-year-olds from low-income families.

“Equally funding our rural areas versus urban areas is something we’ve been talking about,” Bailey said. “We don’t have private providers in the rural areas. That funding mechanism for us needs to be looked at.”

Another concern came from the commission’s aim to encourage higher education institutions overseeing teacher preparation programs to raise their standards. Sen. Melony Griffith (D-District 25) asked Kirwan if this recommendation considered the implications for community colleges, including the added costs it could represent.

“Increasing the rigor of teacher preparation programs in and of itself is not a cost issue,” Kirwan said, “in that it’s what’s being taught in our teacher preparation programs and the content curriculum [that] needs to be changed and elevated.”

Sen. Cheryl Kagan (D-District 17) asked about the commission’s recommendations for English Language Learners, a student population that has grown quickly in Frederick County and one Kagan called a “hugely important aspect of our population.” While the commission report calls for more money to support these students, Kirwan said this addition isn’t included in their initial fiscal 2020 plan due to limited funding.

Though the commission’s work was set to be completed by the start of the current legislative session, Kirwan said there are benefits to the delay.

The commission’s work is now set to be completed by the next legislative session in fall 2019.“The two-stage process we’re in is an advantage,” Kirwan said. “I don’t see how any legislative body could do the policy, the distribution, and where the funding is going to come from at once. … I think the message the commissions feels so strongly about is we can’t afford not to do this. I realize that’s a difficult issue to come to grips with, but we have time to think about it and make it happen.”