Kirwan Commission: Investing in Our Children’s Future

The following article was co-authored by Donald C. Fry, President and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee, and Bishop Douglas Miles, BUILD clergy co-chair, to highlight the importance of the work of the Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education, also know as the Kirwan Commission. The commission’s work has been extended for another year by elected state leaders, with major legislative decisions not expected until the 2020 Maryland General Assembly session.

The collective future of all Marylanders requires nothing less than world-class schools for all our children. Yet, in past years, Maryland’s pre-K-12 system has fallen behind much of the country educationally. Today, it’s average at best. Our students rank 29th in 4th grade math and 26th in 4th grade reading nationally. The situation is worse in Baltimore City where only 70% of students graduate in four years. For many, academics lag largely because of the daily traumas of poverty, violence and crime these kids carry with them and must manage long after the TV cameras have moved on. Too many graduates statewide are poorly prepared for work or college. Yet, by 2023, two-thirds of Maryland jobs will require some form of post-secondary education. And, as Dr. Kirwan notes, at the rate we’re going, we’re unequipped to supply the work force needed to sustain our economy long term.

But a bold new initiative has taken aim at these complex challenges. It’s called the Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education – aka, the Kirwan Commission or, simply, Kirwan, for its chair Dr. Brit Kirwan. Its charge: make policy recommendations to enable Maryland’s pre-K-12 system to perform at the level of the best-performing systems in the world, and to propose changes to current funding formulas.

This dual charge – to address policy and funding — is what makes Kirwan unique from previous efforts such as Thornton or APEX. Usually, state commissions look at either policy or funding. Not both. It is to the Maryland General Assembly’s credit that it has charged the commission with both. Unfunded mandates serve no one. For the past 18 months, working groups have studied the issues, consulted with experts and concerned constituents; examined top-notch systems of comparable size (like Finland whose schools rank #1 in the world), assessed the gathered data, debated, deliberated and formulated strategies to drive sweeping change. The process of estimating the costs of these initiatives is underway. Preliminary results are very promising. A bold plan, unprecedented in scope, rich in attention to detail has emerged from this long, intense process. One observer has called the commission’s work a “once-in-a-generation opportunity to create a first-class education system.”

At this writing, the commission, comprised of 25 state legislators, education and community leaders and stakeholders, is fine tuning its final report to be considered in the 2019 legislative session.

The plan aims to lift the future of all Maryland children with these anticipated recommendations:

  • Universal free pre-K for all low-income 3- and 4-year olds.
  • Better college and career readiness pathways driven by higher standards of literacy in math, English and science.
  • More diverse and well-compensated teachers and higher standards and training for teachers and principals.
  • More resources for at-risk students.
  • A strong, transparent system of accountability and governance.

No other state in the nation is proposing something this bold and far-reaching at this time. And bold is what we need for there is no doubt we have to do better by our kids.

To date, shy final results, Kirwan has won widespread support for its preliminary recommendations among a diverse constituency – including Baltimore City mayor Catherine Pugh; the Greater Baltimore Committee (GBC); and Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development (BUILD). GBC and BUILD enjoy a long, successful history of standing together to secure resources for youth in our city, including creating the College Bound Foundation. Today, our shared focus is on investment in public education in Baltimore and in Maryland.

Kirwan offers enormous promise. We anticipate specific recommendations will ensure that students from Worcester to Garrett Counties and from Cecil to St. Mary’s Counties graduate from high school confident and better prepared for college and careers; that there might be an end in sight to educational inequality for kids from diverse economic backgrounds; that additional resources will support more non-English speakers and at-risk students (including in areas of mental health and trauma); that there will be more money for schools in high poverty areas; and that accountability and transparency will drive the implementation process going forward.

There is much work to be done. Marylanders will need to learn what the Kirwan plan can mean for their children. All this will take time. Yet, this much is clear now: if we don’t seize this system-changing opportunity within our reach, we will fail another generation of children in this state. We are ready for the details because our young people simply cannot wait.

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