A key Democratic narrative this election year is that Maryland used to have the best public schools in the country, but Republican Gov. Larry Hogan has shortchanged them so much that they have now slipped to fifth place.

The problem with this partisan talking point is that the Education Week Quality County report card, on which the claim is based, has always been a dubious indicator of how good the schools actually were. The top grade was only a B and very little of the score was based on student outcomes ­­— rather, they were based on how well they could actually read, compute and understand.

Even if the complicated Quality Counts rating standards were not questionable, Maryland’s slipping ratings are based mostly on lagging data from test scores in O’Malley budget years. And except for Hogan’s first budget, where one optional school aid formula was only partially funded, the current governor has increased education aid every year. Just as the law mandates him to do.

Kirwan Commission

Brit Kirwan, the former university system chancellor who now chairs the Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education, has been trying for the past 16 months to persuade both its members and anyone else who will listen that “Maryland public schools are not as good as we think.

“Maryland is very much in the middle of the pack on these NAEP scores,” Kirwan said at a recent commission meeting, referring to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the only standardized tests administered nationally in reading and math.

“People are, quite frankly, shocked when they see this,” he said.

A key problem with the report card from Education Week, a Bethesda-based publication read mainly by administrators, is that only one-sixth of the report card that first placed Maryland No. 1 was based on K–12 student achievement. The rest of the report card was based on inputs like school aid, demographics and curriculum.

What consultants have told the Kirwan commission — and was widely known by education experts when the “We are #1” buttons we’re being handed out — is that Maryland students consistently score behind students from Massachusetts and New Jersey, not to mention behind students in Shanghai and Singapore.

Kirwan also notes that, despite its wealth, Maryland actually ranks 11th in per student expenditures and, surprisingly, overall spends 5% less on schools with students at-risk from poverty and poorly-educated parents than it does on other students.

“Taken altogether, it is not a pretty picture for our state,” Kirwan said.

The “good work going on in Maryland is far from systemic.”

“We have a good system of education, we have a lot to be proud about, but we can, and we must, be better,” Kirwan said, in September. “Good is not good enough in this day and age. … The state will need to invest significant money at the state level and from the local jurisdictions.”

Gaps and Formulas

The Kirwan Commission was tasked with closing these achievement gaps and recommending new education funding formulas. It was supposed to make its final recommendations to the governor and legislature last month. But Kirwan determined in October that its report was taking shape too slowly, and it would not be able to finish until June.

The postponement avoids a major fight in this election year’s legislature over education aid and funding formulas that can put jurisdictions at odds with each other.
The commission is about to wrap up a preliminary report with an ambitious agenda. During the next decade, based on studies of best performing schools elsewhere, the commission envisions a major overhaul of public education.

Universal Pre-K

That overhaul includes making pre-kindergarten available everywhere in Maryland for all 4- and 5-year-olds. Some legislators had already proposed this in past sessions and, after being told to study it, the commission has agreed it’s worth doing. They haven’t figured out how much it will cost, who will pay for it, who will provide it and whether it will be free for all students.

In an interview last month, Anne Arundel County Executive Steve Schuh commented: “It’s going to be immensely expensive for our county, and it’s also a very sad statement about the country that the government needs to take children away from their parents because the parents are so incompetent … the parents aren’t doing the job at home.”

Teacher Pay Hikes

The commission is also recommending big increases in teacher salaries along with the creation of a statewide career ladder that would put teacher pay in line with other “high-status professions.” The commissioners hope this will increase the size and quality of the pool of people interested in teaching, which has recently shown a decline.

The pay hikes and career ladder leading to the position of master teacher would be based on teaching performance, not academic credentials and seniority. They are an attempt to bring Maryland in line with best practices in high-performing school systems in other countries, particularly Shanghai and Singapore.

The commission will also recommend teams of teachers be given greater autonomy and spend less time in the classroom, and more time collaborating on teaching strategies and methods.

Another major recommendation will be reviving career and technical education at the high school level, in partnership with the businesses that need the trained workforce and the community colleges that are currently providing much of the certified training.

Costs a Lot

All these items and more will cost lots of money — billions more than is currently being spent, it has been estimated. Stephen Guthrie, Carroll County’s school superintendent and a commission member, pointed out, “We cannot afford any of this.” The commission is creating four work groups that will meet during the legislative session to try and arrive at firm estimates of what their recommendations will cost.

Kirwan is also insisting that the commission create accountability standards and new, higher benchmarks for student success to justify the new money.

“In this era, simply asking for more money to continue with existing practices has little or no chance of success,” Kirwan told the commissioners. “We need a bold plan with a high degree of accountability. Anything less will relegate our report to the round file.”

Prospects are dim for actually paying for the policy changes without new taxes. A presentation by legislative budget analyst David Romans showed structural deficits recurring in a few years, just based on existing programs for health and education; because of existing health entitlements and education aid formulas, state spending is rising faster than state revenues.

“There doesn’t appear we have an easy way to fund new initiatives,” Romans said.

The only representative of business on the commission, Scott Dorsey, chairman and CEO of Merritt Properties, agreed that the salary jumps were “necessary” to retain teachers, but “we need to think of ways to be creative. It’s not just about the money, it’s about innovation.”

Sick Leave, Violence

The Maryland General Assembly convenes Jan. 10. One of the first items on the agenda — which is required by the state constitution, in fact — is the consideration of the governor’s vetoes. The focus will be on Hogan’s rejection of the paid sick leave bill that passed last year.

The governor has offered another alternative plan for earning and accounting for sick leave. Democratic legislators dismiss it as too little, too late. Business groups are trying to round up a vote or two in the Senate to prevent an override, but prospects look dim.

The vote to override has become a party call. Democrats would love to stick it to Hogan on an issue where polls show him on the wrong side of public opinion, which is why he has proposed alternatives to the vetoed Democrats’ plan that provide broader benefits for more employees, including part-timers.

Legislators will also introduce bills to help Baltimore City cope with its horrendous murder rate and rising violence, even in neighborhoods that used to be safe. The violence undermines positive things going on in the city and hurts efforts to attract more people to live there, such as the Amazon headquarters. No matter how attractive a package the city and state put together to bring Amazon to Port Covington, news clips showing violence dropping in most U.S. cities are accompanied by a flag showing Baltimore with the highest murder rate in any major city.

Forget about rates. With about 350 murders, Baltimore again has dozens more people killed than New York City, a city 14 times larger with a growing population. Until the murders and street violence are under control, little else matters.

Schrader’s New (Paid) Position

It looks like Dennis Schrader, the former Howard County Councilmember, will start getting paid again. Gov. Larry Hogan gave up his fight over Schrader’s appointment as acting health secretary, and replaced him with Bob Neall, the former state senator, Anne Arundel County executive and Johns Hopkins medical administrator. Schrader becomes chief operating officer of the health department, where he went six months without pay because of legislative budget language.

A Circuit Court judge ruled last month that Schrader must be paid, but the Court of Appeals, Maryland’s high court, stayed the judge’s order and said it would take another six months before it would take up the case.