On a sunny Monday morning, more than 100 people — many of them clad in blue shirts with “Our Kids Can’t Wait” written on them — gathered at College Avenue and St. John’s Street in Annapolis, outside the south side of the House of Delegates Office Building.
They included infants, schoolchildren and older adults.
Melanie Andrew, a senior at Catoctin High School, attended the rally to show her support of the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, a 10-year plan to revamp Maryland’s public schools. That plan has been one of the main focuses of this year’s General Assembly, as lawmakers are debating its policies and how to fund a plan that could cost up to $3.8 billion per fiscal year, depending on what might ultimately be passed by the General Assembly and signed by Gov. Larry Hogan.
The bill — also known as the Kirwan bill and named for Brit Kirwan, the chancellor emeritus of the University System of Maryland — has five core tenets:
- Improving access to early childhood education.
- Training, recruiting and retaining high-quality and diverse teachers/leaders.
- Expanding college and career readiness programs for high school students, not only for higher education, but in the trades.
- Increasing resources for special education, kids who live in poverty and English as a second language students.
- Establishing accountability mechanisms to make sure goals are implemented.
More concretely, those tenets include goals such as raising teacher pay, instituting universal prekindergarten, and increasing teacher training and alternative student career paths.
Andrew’s mother teaches in Frederick County Public Schools, and often works with special-needs students — another area the Kirwan bill could address. It’s also one she personally experienced, as she had speech impediments and social anxiety growing up and attending New Midway/Woodsboro Elementary School.
“I had the resources at my school, thankfully, to get over my speech impediment and help me kind of get more out there,” Andrew said after the rally. “And I know schools kind of don’t have that [not only] in even Frederick County, but just across the state of Maryland.”
The Kirwan proposal’s impact on special education would help students with disabilities such as autism or Down syndrome live more independently, she added.
For the rest of the General Assembly session, lawmakers in both the House of Delegates and Senate will debate not only how to pay for Kirwan, but also the merits of the 172-page bill. That bill was, in part, the product of the Kirwan Commission, a body that spent three years drafting recommendations to revamp the state’s education system.
That bill, which lays out much of the policy of Kirwan, is one half of the puzzle. Lawmakers introduced a proposal on Thursday that would generate $2.6 billion in sales tax revenue annually, which would help pay for many of the initiatives in Kirwan.
Earlier this month, Senate President Emeritus Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Prince George’s, Charles and Calvert), sitting at his desk in the Senate chamber, said the reason he came back to serve this year was to assist in passing some version of Kirwan.
He understands there are challenges, but said there needs to be buy-in from everybody — including counties and other local jurisdictions — in order for the proposal to work.
Democratic leadership in both the House and Senate are optimistic about the bill’s goals, including Sen. Paul Pinsky (D-Prince George’s). Pinsky, chair of the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee, said it’s vital that the entire bill is executed.
“You can have great teachers, but if you don’t change your curriculum, it’s probably not going to matter,” said Pinsky, who sat on the Kirwan Commission. “If you don’t have pre-K, the tutoring in second grade probably is not going to matter a lot. If you don’t have accountability, it’s not going to matter.”
But some are not so optimistic. House Minority Leader Nic Kipke (R-Anne Arundel) said the plan, which looked at education models around the globe including Massachusetts — a top state nationwide for education — does not do enough to address the gap in quality schools in Maryland.
The Kirwan plan addresses revamping and improving many aspects of K-12 education statewide, but Kipke and other Republicans believe it doesn’t do enough to close the gap between the state’s best and worst schools, an idea they feel should be emphasized more.
J.B. Jennings (R-Baltimore and Harford), the Senate minority leader, said more needs to be done toward student discipline, because without that, all the other goals in the proposal are difficult to execute.
More needs to be done to allow teachers to succeed in the classroom, he added.
“Dealing with kids, disruptive kids, there’s not much in there that deals with that,” Jennings said. “That is a big issue. That’s what we hear from teachers every day, is the classroom is no longer a teaching environment, and that’s why we need to focus on that in this bill.”
Local support, but funding questioned
Several people in the Frederick County delegation and county leadership are mostly optimistic about what the bill does.
Del. Jesse Pippy (R-Frederick and Carroll), the Frederick County delegation chair, pointed right away to teacher pay, giving a common scenario for those who live in Frederick County.
“I know that Frederick County, we have a lot of folks that actually commute to Montgomery County to be a teacher because it pays better and then they come back and they live in Frederick County, so Kirwan, it attempts to address some of those issues,” Pippy said.
Other local Republicans, including Del. Dan Cox, also support raising teacher pay. But he, like others in his party, shared concerns about other jurisdictions and whether money from the bill is making its way to the classroom instead of going toward administrative costs.
There’s also another issue, he said: paying for one of the core tenants of the plan. Cox said pre-K is beneficial, but it can be costly.
“Three-year-old pre-K is very expensive, that’s like day care for everybody, that’s got a high price tag,” Cox said. “So I think some of those more expensive things … they may end up altering.”
Still, Cox, Pippy and others are supportive of the plan’s overall mission. And Sen. Ron Young (D-Frederick), vice chair of the delegation, said despite the plan’s high cost, there is an often-overlooked benefit.
If Maryland’s citizens are better-educated, he said, then they will obtain higher-level degrees. With higher degrees, those people find better paying jobs. And better paying jobs lead to more tax revenue for both localities and the state.
And that means, in the long run, the bill will pay for itself, Young said.
Frederick County Council President M.C. Keegan-Ayer (D) also believes the plan addresses several areas that would benefit the county. But she’s currently in a wait-and-see mode to see how the plan is funded, how much counties owe versus the state and what goals and initiatives are passed into law.
But she was concerned about pre-K expansion, given the current capacity in Frederick County Public Schools.
“The problem that we have in Frederick County is if you mandate pre-K, we don’t have the facility space within our buildings,” Keegan-Ayer said.
More debate; changes to come
Del. Maggie McIntosh (D-Baltimore), who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, plays an important role in determining how Kirwan is funded.
And sitting at her desk in the second row of seats in the House of Delegates chamber earlier this month, she made certain to point out one idea: The legislation, if passed, should be implemented in phases.
Some areas, such as universal pre-K, will be funded and started in the later years of the 10-year cycle. But others, like putting funds in poverty-ridden areas and special education programs, can happen more quickly.
“We’re going to have all of those in the bill once it comes out, I don’t see any one of those tenants dropping out of the bill,” McIntosh said.
Joy Schaefer, a former Frederick County Board of Education member who sat on the Kirwan Commission, is following the Kirwan proposal closely.
Schaefer said the core tenets of the bill have stayed the same, but there are some logistical concerns on certain funding aspects of the proposal, including what revenue streams the county can draw from.
“I just think some of the language needs clarification because the phase-in for the local [funding] share is not clear, some of the revenue that counties have to generate is also not clear,” said Schaefer, who was speaking as a commission member, not Frederick County’s director of government affairs and public policy.
Much of Kirwan’s policies will be debated in the coming weeks. It’s likely the bills dropped as Senate Bill 1000 and House Bill 1300 will look substantially different once they reach a final vote.
“There are things we are going to have to adjust,” Senate President Bill Ferguson told four committees in a joint bill hearing earlier this month. “The key component of this legislation, unlike any other reform effort that has happened across this country, is it is addressing every single part of the spectrum, from the 2-year-old through [high school] graduation. This is what real education reform looks like.”
Senate President Emeritus Miller, who spent more than three decades as Ferguson’s predecessor, summarized the bill’s possible impact in grand terms.
“If it’s funded, it would be worldwide news, quite frankly,” he said. “It would be the best program of any state in the union.”