There are just two problems with the Kirwan Commission blueprint to reform Maryland’s public schools: It won’t work and it will break the bank. These trivialities aside, all is well.

The plan’s fatal flaw was identified by one of the commission’s own, Chester Finn, who admitted he was disappointed at its “refusal to … recommend any form of school choice.” In other words, the commission doubled down on Maryland’s unwise commitment to monopoly in public education, further insulating it from competition’s healthy effects on quality and cost.

States that embrace parental choice in K-12 education show exactly how powerful and cost-effective that can be. We in the Land of Pleasant Living, on the other hand, see the damaging consequences of trusting self-protective bureaucrats and self-seeking unions to guide policy in this crucial sector.

The latest National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) makes clear that Maryland’s public schools are doing less with more. As of 2017 (the latest year for which nationwide census data are available), Maryland spent 22 percent more (on a per-pupil basis) and paid its teachers 28 percent more than the national average. From 2012 to 2017, the state increased per-pupil spending 9 percent; meanwhile, its NAEP scores have been in steady decline. Fourth-grade reading scores, for example, have plunged 11 points since 2011, while fourth-grade math scores are down 7 points.

Arizona and Florida, on the other hand, spend 34 percent and 26 percent less per pupil, respectively, than the national average, while their NAEP scores are trending upward. Arizona’s fourth-grade reading scores are up 4 points and math scores up 3 points since 2011; that state once trailed Maryland’s scores significantly but has all but closed the gap. Florida also trailed Maryland’s performance in 2011, and now surpasses it by 5 points in fourth-grade reading and 6 points in math.

So while students in progressive Maryland regress, the kids in a couple of fiscally conservative states are actually progressing. How? Via enhanced school choice and competition, which research shows causes everyone to step up their game. Arizona and Florida rank one-two in the nation in educational choice share (the proportion of K–12 students enrolled in an education savings account, school voucher, or tax-credit scholarship program). Maryland ranks 18th of the 30 states that tolerate such choice programs.

Revealingly, when its devastating NAEP scores were posted, Baltimore’s school superintendent said she would send a delegation to study “best practices” in Washington, D.C., where NAEP scores improved in three of four categories. She will learn that the District has nearly as many students enrolled in charter schools — which must compete for students or go out of business — as in regular public schools, and roughly double the number in the entire state of Maryland. Competition is, indeed, a best practice.

Then there is the matter of Kirwan’s crushing financial burden for state and local governments. The commission’s spin doctors like to say that the plan’s costs will rise to about $4 billion over 10 years — leaving the impression that’s the total bill. In reality, that’s the one-year cost of new obligations in year 10; the cumulative total for the period is $31.9 billion — at least. The dirty little secret buried in the 233-page Kirwan report is that this is a low-ball figure,

after netting out a total of $11.8 billion in promised “savings” and “offsets.”

What savings? For example, $764 million per year (by 2030) from a hoped-for decline in special ed costs, and more millions assumed from elimination of some stipends for teachers, reductions of central staff, and various “overlaps” of programmatic spending deemed redundant after new Kirwan initiatives take root. It is naive in the extreme to suppose that such promises will survive the political process in the next legislative session, much less the coming decade.

But there are signs that some government officials — though eager to lock up the bloc votes promised by teachers unions — are starting to realize that Kirwan is a budget buster. That will be especially true in the long run, thanks to the added pension obligations resulting from the plan’s bulked-up staffing levels. Maryland’s pension obligations are only 35 percent funded right now, with over $117 billion unfunded; the post-Kirwan burden for future Maryland taxpayers is frightening to contemplate.

More troubling, however, is that the plan’s extravagant costs carry little future benefit for Maryland’s students. As Mr. Finn, again, has pointed out, Kirwan leaves undisturbed “Maryland’s top-down, district-based control of K–12 education, an arrangement that disempowers parents, punishes schools of choice, creates inequity between counties, and confines the principals of district schools to administrative matters rather than functioning as true executives.” Following this blueprint would build a bridge to nowhere for Maryland’s schoolchildren.

Stephen J.K. Walters is chief economist at the Maryland Public Policy Institute and the author of “Boom Towns: Restoring the Urban American Dream.”

(13) comments


You can't rely on anything that is published by the Maryland Public Policy Institute. They're famous for getting their facts wrong or just making them up. Case in point: the author states that the Maryland pension obligations are only 35 percent funded right now. Wrong! The Maryland State Retirement and Pension System is 73 percent funded. And this was written by MPPI's chief economist? What a joke.


School choice: You want to divide precious resources to provide alternatives? Are they separate but equal?


This editorial is nonsense. You don't get better education by the amount of money you spend. You get better education by doing a good analysis of shortcomings. You pay money based on the area you live in and the amount of money needed to pay competitive wages.

As far as charter schools and vouchers, they are a farce. You have charter schools to make the discontents happy, they are no better than the public schools. Vouchers are to get around the laws of separation of church and state.

We have discussed this many times, about time to quit these idiotic editorials.


Maryland is ranked 11th in K-12 education, Florida is 27th and Arizona is 44th. So it appears that Maryland is doing something right despite the author's attempt to provide misleading information.


Each group seems to pick and choose the data to fit their position. We need a true accounting of the costs/benefits. If we are already spending 22% more than the national average on K - 12 (I don't know if that cost has been normalized to take into account the difference in the cost of living) on a per student basis and we rank 11th in the country for results, how much improvement will we get for all of the additional cost and who is going to pay for all of it? I don't want to pay for any of the increased costs since I already pay more to educate children than those people who chose to have children do.


Costs, at least as far as I could determine, are not adjusted for regional costs of living, building costs, etc. As far as not paying increased costs, I'm sorry but education is not free and the benefits to society in general far outweigh those concerns.


You are right that education is not free. I don’t argue that my taxes shouldn’t help support education but I shouldn’t have to pay more to educate children than their parents do especially when I’d rather more of my taxes go to environmental protection especially since the costs of the increasing human population far outweighs the benefits. Should we make it cheaper for people to have children? Those of us who have never had children are taxed more because of not having children. Having children is a want not a need. Are you willing to be taxed to pay for my desire to have a small chateaux in the Adirondacks? I can't afford it without your tax dollar support. Is my want any less valid than those who have children, particularly if the parents have their children before they reduce their own carbon footprint (I’ve reduced mine greatly through solar and geothermal at my house)? When parents no longer get income tax deductions/credits for having children and when the parents reduce their adverse impact on the planet before having children, then you'll have a little more support for your position.


But that argument applies to so many areas - I am on a well, my real estate taxes should be less. I don't own a car so road and other taxes shouldn't apply to me, etc...

I understand your argument but some things are done to improve society in general. And yes, the environment is crucial but look at the difference between military spending and the environment in terms of spending. I see a need for both.


You won't get an argument from me for cutting some of the military budget to put it to better use. I suspect the EPA saves more American lives in this country per dollar of its budget than the military does in its overseas operations. BTW I'm on a well too, but most anywhere I go, I use the public water and sewer and whether or not you own a car, you indirectly use the roads to leave your house, receive goods, etc. I can't use the schools. Additionally people who drive pay more in taxes through registration fees, license fees, gas tax, tolls, etc. People with children pay less for the services they use for their choice to have children. Don't tax me more until they at least pay the same.


It was telling that the author used percentages to describe spending changes but raw numbers (without even a scale) to describe test result changes.



Consider the source.


Are you disputing the costs Gary? With a price tag that high we must certainly question the costs/benefit. Why doesn't the school system mandate more participation from the parents rather than ask for more money from those of us who chose not to have children and end up paying more in income taxes to educate the children tahn the parents do. They are doing the opposite by pushing for all day pre-k. For all the added cost what will be the benefit by the time the children gradute (for those that do graduate) versus relying on the parents to spend time with the children they chose to have and provide them with their early education (pre-k). I say piffle to your piffle.


"It won’t work and it will break the bank."

Oh, well, besides that.

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