In an unusual joint announcement of a highly unusual joint appointment, Republican Gov. Larry Hogan and the Democratic leaders of the legislature Tuesday named former university system chancellor Brit Kirwan as chair of a commission to review all the hotly contested school funding issues in Maryland.
The legislature quietly and unanimously passed two bills, HB999/SB905, setting up the Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education. Its recommendations are due in December 2017, potentially kicking off some of the most contentious debates of the election-year legislative session in 2018 as representatives fight for formulas that help their local schools.
The 25-member commission is charged with examining a long list of issues about public school funding:
- An updated base per pupil funding amount and additional funding for special needs students that are adequate for students to meet the new academic standards for college and career readiness;
- how to deal with counties with increasing and declining enrollment; expansion of prekindergarten and funding for prekindergarten and other early childhood education programs;
- equity in school finance and local wealth measures; the regional cost of education index;
- accountability measures;
- the effects of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act on education in the State; and,
- Policy initiatives to enhance the availability of and access to innovative educational opportunities in K-12 education systems and how the State can better prepare students for postsecondary education, the workforce and the global economy.
The 25-member commission includes four senators, four delegates, representatives of school boards, superintendents, unions, county officials, the university chancellor, business groups and parents, as well as members of the public. Some members are appointed by the Assembly’s presiding officers, some by the governor, and some by outside groups.
The joint appointment of the chair was required by the bill, and if it didn’t happen by Aug. 1, the Democratic leaders were allowed to do it on their own.
Adept at education and politics
In naming Kirwan, Hogan and his frequent jousting partners, Senate President Mike Miller and House Speaker Michael Busch, managed to select not only a nationally recognized educator but one of the most adept navigators of Maryland’s political waters and education policy.
Kirwan served as chancellor of the University System of Maryland for 12 years, president of the Ohio State University for four years, and president of the University of Maryland College Park flagship campus for nine. Kirwan, 78, began his career in Maryland as a math professor.
The new commission comes 14 years after the Thornton Commission, headed by Howard University professor Alvin Thornton, recommended legislation passed in 2002 that led to the massive infusion of education funding from the state that now amounts to $6.3 billion a year. Adequate public schools is one of the onlt funding obligations mandated in the Maryland Constitution, and was the subject of multiple lawsuits in the last century that resulted in formation of the Thornton commission,
Creating the new commission was a top priority for the Maryland State Education Association, the union representing 70,000 educators, but the entire education establishment was behind the bills, including all the school boards and superintendents. The Maryland Association of Counties, PTAs, the ACLU and child advocacy groups all supported the legislation.
Look at more than funding, governor says
In announcing the appointment, Hogan said: “The formation of the Kirwan Commission is a valuable opportunity to identify new polices and ground-breaking solutions that will better prepare students for the future and has the real potential to improve educational outcomes in Maryland schools,”
But in a nod to his continuing battles with legislators over school funding, Hogan also said, “In order to live up to its potential, the commission must resist the temptation to focus entirely on education funding, to the exclusion of innovative new ideas that will truly change our schools for the better.”
“A quality education for every child in Maryland is a top priority of the General Assembly,” said Speaker Busch. “Dr. Kirwan has dedicated much of his career to the students of this state and his work through the commission will set a blueprint for the success of Maryland’s children for the next decade.”
“Dr. Kirwan’s national prominence and tremendous experience in how to prepare our children for the economy of the future is unparalleled,” said President Miller “I can think of no one better to chair the Commission and am deeply grateful for Dr. Kirwan’s willingness to serve our state once again.”