If Kirwan is the New Thornton for Education Spending, Did It Work the First Time?

Orignially published on FOX 45 News

MPPI in the News Chris Papst Nov 13, 2019

If the Kirwan Commission is adopted in full, Maryland taxpayers will be asked to provide billions of additional dollars to state schools. But this is not the first time taxpayers have been asked to pay up.

What’s happening now with the Kirwan Commission happened nearly 20 years ago with the Thornton Commission. Like Kirwan, Thornton significantly increased education spending in our state. The idea is more money creates better schools. Did it work?

In 2002, Lawmakers in Annapolis passed The Bridge to Excellence in Public Schools Act, commonly known as Thornton. It was the largest increase in education funding in Maryland history, and it was heavily debated.

Back then, Maryland was spending $8,921 per student, per year, according to the U.S. Census. That was about $900 more than the national average of $8,019. But Thornton dramatically increased that amount. By 2017, Maryland was spending $16,835 per pupil, which was $2,562 more than the national average of $14,273. As taxes went up, taxpayers were told more money would mean better schools.

Fifteen years later, did that extra money make a difference? Project Baltimore investigated. According to the Manhattan Institute, Maryland’s high school graduation rate in 2002 was 72 percent, three points above the national average. By 2017, it jumped to 87 percent, according to Education Week. But, on average, the rest of America did better, too. Even with the extra money, Maryland’s graduation rate is now two points above the national average at 85 percent.

Project Baltimore also looked at test scores. Every two years, the federal government releases the nation’s report card, also known as NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress). In 2003, Maryland’s combined math and English scores were one point above the nation’s average. Fifteen years later, after taxes went up and billions of additional dollars went to Maryland schools, state test scores are now two points about the national average.

“I would ask, where are the results?" says Jennifer Butler, who is with the Maryland Public Policy Institute, a center-right think tank. She says more money is simply not the answer.

“There is absolutely no correlation between the amount of money invested in schools and the results and test grades,” says Butler. “I mean, we've seen scandal after scandal in Baltimore City, and I would ask, is the money that they currently have being used effectively and efficiently? I think the answer is no. So, before we start talking about putting more money into a failing school district, maybe we need to stop and take a look at what they're already doing with what they have?”

Delegate Eric Luedtke, a Democrat from Montgomery County, is a member of the Kirwan Commission, which has recommended increasing education funding by another $4 billion at the end of a 10-year phase in.

“These are the right questions to be asking, absolutely,” says Luedtke.

Luedtke says, since 2002, Maryland’s number of students living in poverty has drastically increased, along with our special education needs and the number of English language learners.

“So, the fact that our graduation rates and our NAEP rates have not done worse, is a testament to what happened in Thornton,” he says.

Now, under Kirwan, Luedtke says the extra money will come with extra oversight. Earlier this year, the legislature created the Office of Performance Evaluation to oversee public schools. And a new Office of Inspector General for education will have subpoena power to investigate waste.

“We can do better with more investment,” says Luedtke. “We’re not just increasing funding. We’re reforming schools. And we’re providing a new structure of accountability to make sure the schools are doing the best they can for our kids.”

Right now, the state spends about $8.5 billion on education, which is 18 percent of the state budget. The first three years of the state portion of Kirwan is already paid for without any tax increases, but Luedtke says those discussions will eventually happen.