Maryland still has no idea how to fix its public schools
Originally published in the Washington Post
MARYLAND’S COMMISSION studying public education gets credit for courageously facing the truth about the quality of schools in the state. It punctured the illusion created by deceptive national rankings showing Maryland at or near the top, concluding that “when it comes to actual student learning, Maryland schools perform at a mediocre level in a country that performs at a mediocre level internationally.” Unfortunately, though, the commission was not nearly as daring when it came to remedies. Instead it opted to embrace the same old formula of more school spending, which has proved to be ineffective.
Democratic leaders in the General Assembly this last week introduced legislation that would provide more than $1 billion in new state education funding over the next two years, a down payment to implement preliminary recommendations of the Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education established by the legislature in 2016. Chaired by the former chancellor of the University System of Maryland, William “Brit” Kirwan, the 25-member commission has mapped out a multipronged plan that includes expanded prekindergarten programs, increased learning standards, raises for teachers and new help for special education and low-income students. It is estimated the plan will cost nearly $4 billion a year in a decade . But where the money will come from — and the politically charged issue of how it will be apportioned among the state’s jurisdictions — must still be worked out.
There seems to have been a headlong rush to embrace the commission’s recommendations, with most state politicians swearing fealty to them in last year’s elections. That should give serious pause to Maryland taxpayers. It’s not only that they will be footing the bill with higher taxes or cutbacks in other services. The state’s previous experience also demonstrated the shortcomings, if not outright failure, of increased education expenditures to produce better outcomes.
A previous educational commission, called the Thornton Commission, prompted a historic boost in school spending after 2002. Yet less than 40 percent of Maryland high school graduates can read at a 10th-grade level or pass an Algebra 1 exam. The achievement gap separating African American and Hispanic students from their white peers persists.
An analysis last year by the Maryland Public Policy Institute found that increased spending encouraged administrative bloat. It said there is scant evidence of the efficacy of some of the programs being promoted. Those advocating for the Kirwan initiatives argue the Thornton scheme failed because the formulas were never fully funded; they say this time it will be different because there would be a new state bureaucracy that will ensure accountability.
Color us skeptical. While there certainly are praiseworthy aspects to the commission’s findings — notably its reimagining of high school with college and career-ready pathways and its emphasis on supporting teachers — it is disappointing there was no nod to providing choice to students trapped in failing schools or discussion of smarter ways to reward effective teachers. Rather than simply rubber-stamping a push for massive new school spending, lawmakers should be asking the hard questions of whether Maryland families and children will really be helped.