Guest Host: Dan Reed

The Kirwan Commission was established by the state of Maryland to issue recommendations for public school policies and funding. Although the commission’s full findings were delayed several times, the Kirwan Commission did share preliminary findings which have helped shape legislation currently under consideration by the Maryland General Assembly.

We take a look at the future of public education in Maryland, discuss how the state plans to pay for changes and explore what this means for current and future students and educators.

Produced by Mark Gunnery


  • Alvin Thornton Chair, Prince George's County Public Schools Board of Education
  • David Steiner Executive Director, Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy; Member, Kirwan Commission
  • Cheryl Bost President, Maryland State Education Association; @BostCAB


  • 12:22:12

    DAN REEDWelcome back to the Kojo Nnamdi Show. I'm Dan Reed sitting in for Kojo. Maryland has big plans for education and some legislatures are proposing major spikes and funding to pay for those changes. Education advocates are looking towards the future for long term solutions and funding. Figuring out how to raise and spend that money for education is the task of the Kirwan commission in Maryland. And today we're talking about what the future could look like for education in the state. Joining us to discuss this today are Cheryl Bost, president of the Maryland State Education Association. Thanks for being here.

  • 12:22:42

    CHERYL BOSTThank you for having me.

  • 12:22:43

    REEDDavid Steiner, the executive director of the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy and a member of the Kirwan Commission, thanks for being here.

  • 12:22:50

    DAVID STEINERThank you so much.

  • 12:22:50

    REEDAnd Alvin Thornton, chair of the Prince George's County Public Schools board of education.

  • 12:22:55

    ALVIN THORNTONThank you.

  • 12:22:57

    REEDSo David, Maryland legislators want to see a hefty increase in education spending to fund the recommendations of this commission. What exactly are they seeking out?

  • 12:23:06

    STEINERWell, they're looking for funding so that we can take Maryland from where it is right now, which is basically about the middle of the country in terms of educational results and move it really back to the top and to equivalency, at best, with some of the world's strongest systems. That's not cheap and it also requires quite serious changes of policy.

  • 12:23:30

    REEDCheryl, Governor Hogan told reporters yesterday that lawmakers' ambitious spending proposals could cause a $21 billion budget shortfall. And, as he said, could run us into a ditch bigger than the one we are currently crawling out of. How do you respond to concerns about the cost of education funding?

  • 12:23:49

    BOSTI think when we look at our students we have to see this as an investment into our future into our workforce. And we have for far too long neglected our public education funding in our system. So if we want to have productive workers when our students graduate, we need to invest in our public education for expanded pre-kindergarten, for our career technical education, many of the things that are listed in the Kirwan commission report. And we need the governor to really be onboard with increasing the funding for our schools.

  • 12:24:21

    REEDAlvin, some Kirwan Commission members are concerned about how these recommendations will be paid for. What are some of the funding ideas being discussed right now and what would they mean for both state and county budgets?

  • 12:24:33

    THORNTONWell, this is a situation that we faced in 2001 when I chaired the Bridge to Excellence concept, which...

  • 12:24:42

    REEDWhich is a commission named after you.

  • 12:24:44

    THORNTONThat's right. And the thing I want to say to our leadership, that I'm very pleased with by the way, the commission members, Dr. Kirwan's leadership, the speaker and the president and, I'm sure, eventually the governor, that we've been here before. This is nothing new to us. And in 2001 and then in 2002 we all bonded together on the gubernatorial leadership under the speaker and as well as the President, and the people of Maryland massively showing their support for tough decisions. So we'll do this again.

  • 12:25:16

    THORNTONWe have some differences at this point, but those differences, as they were 17 years ago, will be removed in support of our children and then we will create a blueprint for Maryland's future. I'm confident of that because we did it before.

  • 12:25:30

    REEDFor people who don't follow education issues closely, what exactly is at stake here and why do you think Marylanders should be paying attention?

  • 12:25:37

    STEINERWell, first of all, we are about 12th in the country in education funding by state and we are, by most measures, the wealthiest state in the United States. So I think, first of all, we need to say, yes, the state can afford this if it's done well. Secondly, there's a direct relationship between the quality of education a child receives and their capacity to enjoy the opportunities that our society offers. Thirdly, economically we know there's a direct relationship between the level of education in the state and the overall state GDP, the gross domestic product. It is extremely important at an individual level but it's also important at a society level that a state invests in world class education.

  • 12:26:21

    THORNTONAnd we don't have the ability to not do this. Our state constitution, Article 8 and its equal rights provision requires that politics not have underfunded educational expectation of our children. That is not politically, constitutionally and it is certainly not morally permissible. Now, we have the option, we either do this or we go back to the litigiousness that divided our state regionally, racially, socioeconomically for so many years. In my county, 25 years, in Baltimore City, 25 years. We do not want that to happen. Article 8 requires that we not do that.

  • 12:26:58

    BOSTI was just going to say, the investment is needed, because we see more of our students who are living in poverty. We have a lot of areas, even here in Montgomery County, that have concentrated poverty. And so the system that we have right now does not provide what all students need in all zip codes, all ethnicities and no matter what their parents make. And we need to make sure that we provide equity across the state. And Marylanders overwhelmingly, when surveyed, support additional funding for our schools.

  • 12:27:23

    STEINERI think the tragic achievement gap between African American, Hispanic students on one hand, white Asians is really a tragedy and it affects life prospects for all those young people. We have to close those achievement gaps. They're vicious in terms of life hopes.

  • 12:27:43

    REEDThat's the voice of David Steiner who's one of the members of the Kirwan Commission. David, while the legislature is focused on next year's spending, we still don't have final recommendations from the commission. The release of those recommendations has been delayed several times. Why is that and when will it be ready?

  • 12:27:59

    STEINERSo it's a great question. We have to attribute the spending between the states and the counties. And that's an incredibly complicated challenge, because the counties are differentially situated in terms of their own economies and we're trying to balance what the state share should be, what the county share should be. How do we look at those base funding formulas and distribute the burden of funding this important initiative so the policies are in place and the overall spending needs are in place. We know what the requirements will be each year. The question really is, how do we distribute the responsibility (unintelligible).

  • 12:28:37

    THORNTON(overlapping) And I would say, because we faced the same situation in 2002 in the writing of the formula, and I would say to my colleagues on the commission not focus on the counties. Focus on the children, because as far as I'm concerned, when it comes to this, counties don't exist. The state constitution does not speak to counties. It speaks to children when it comes to Article 8.

  • 12:28:56

    THORNTONSo I would ask my commission colleagues to write a formula that directs the funds to the children, foundation amount that ensures adequate funding for all children no matter where they are, addressing their special needs in the areas of concentrated poverty as they are doing in their recommendations. That's why I say I'm so proud of what they are doing, but we did it, we wrote the formula, they will write the formula. And hopefully that formula will be focused on children and not counties.

  • 12:29:24

    REEDWe've got a call from Victoria in Southern Maryland. Victoria, you're on the line.

  • 12:29:28

    VICTORIAYes, this is Victoria. David, why don't you tell the listeners what happened to my testimony on moving to cost modeling. I worked at headquarters department of the army and they had software that would allow us to move away from an old formula-based system to the cost modeling, which allow us to address any of the inequities in the gap.

  • 12:29:52

    REEDThank you, Victoria.

  • 12:29:53

    STEINERWell, there are multiple suggestions for how we think about this. One of the deep problems, for example, in Baltimore, which has the most challenged education results is how they calculate needs. The data has changed and there's evidence to suggest we're under calculating the needs of intensely poor students. So we can do this multiple ways. I think the question of how it's calculated, the question of who exactly it's going to fall on as a burden is a political question.

  • 12:30:23

    STEINERLook, we're a democracy. We will figure this out. We have expert advice on these formulas and how to make sure we are getting the funding right against those who need it most. The commission is recommending, for example, upward of $3,000 per child extra for the children in extreme poverty, because we know that they need the extra help.

  • 12:30:45

    BOSTI think the important thing that we need to look at this year while the legislature's still in session is to make the commitment now. As the commission works on those formulas in the wealth-based and anything that they are looking at, we need funding this year for what the Thornton Commission recommended, which is salary increases so they can attract and retain the best quality teachers.

  • 12:31:04

    BOSTWe need the expanded pre-K, the career technology education and then we need a marker, a down payment so that we can begin this, because each year we fall behind is another year in a child's life. So this year's legislature and the bills getting passed this year are critical.

  • 12:31:18

    REEDCheryl, you're the president of the state's largest teachers union and last week thousands of teachers protested in Annapolis. Why?

  • 12:31:26

    BOSTBecause our kids can't wait for this funding, we need to fully fund our schools. It was a great event. Not only did we have educators, we had community supporters. Many, many students were there. A historic night, and the call was that our kids can't wait. We need to get this right. Our students deserve better schools. All students deserve better schools and so it was a very energetic, enthusiastic showing to tell our legislators and especially Governor Hogan that we need to increase the funding for our schools.

  • 12:31:58

    BOSTAnd then we will expect a commitment from our county executives and our commissioners to do the same in each local jurisdiction. So many Marylanders, even those that weren't there, have begun emailing legislators and calling the governor to make this investment. So it was a great night.

  • 12:32:13

    THORNTONAnd it's important to point out that it was not just teachers. The president of our senate was there, a very significant person. County executives from throughout the state were there. Delegates and senators were there and it's important to not view this as a teachers' march that I participated in, was at the head of the line, as I was 17 years ago, because the reason it's so important is people have to know that the people -- it's a political decision, but the people will be there to support their elected officials as they make these tough decisions.

  • 12:32:48

    STEINERSo the crucial thing, I think, for your listeners to understand is this isn't a one-way giveaway. This isn't about just the spending of more money. To give you two examples, first of all, on the teachers' side, we welcome increased investment in teachers' salaries. At the same time we are raising the standards for entry into the profession. This is a kind of grand bargain, if you will. We want this profession to be properly recognized in compensation. And in return we want to be sure that we put highly effective teachers in front of children. We also have an independent accountability board that will actually be able to hold back funds if we have evidence that they're not being well spent.

  • 12:33:30

    REEDWe've got an email from James, who says, "I work as a support room assistant at an elementary school in Carroll County. I love my job, but $14.12 an hour prohibits me from ever owning a home or paying off my student debt. The governor needs to approve more funds ASAP."

  • 12:33:47

    BOSTJames, we completely agree with you. One of the disappointments coming out of the Kirwan Commission is they did not address the many education support professionals, who make education possible for our students and for our teachers. We are pushing a bill to make sure that those folks get a living wage and we are supportive of the fight for 15. But absolutely we have 24,000 education support professionals, who don't make a living wage in this state. And so we need the governor to put the funding for this and to make sure that they get wage increases.

  • 12:34:20

    REEDWe'll continue our conversation after a short break. Please stay tuned.

  • 12:34:55

    REEDWelcome back. I'm Dan Reed in for Kojo Nnamdi. We're talking about education funding in Maryland. My first question is for Alvin Thornton, who is a member of the Prince George's County board of education and is also the namesake of a commission set up almost 20 years ago to figure out how to fund schools in Maryland. Alvin, at the end of last year the commission that is currently setting this funding, which is colloquially called the Kirwan Commission, reduced the amount of money it was asking for by about half a billion dollars. What was dropped from this and do you think the political will is there to make sure these recommendations are fully funded?

  • 12:35:29

    THORNTONI don't know what was dropped from it. I'll ask the commission member, who can answer that question. I do know that they're very tough decisions that they have to make in terms of what is politically feasible, what is possible and we have to make those same decisions, but in terms of what they dropped and why they chose to do that I'll let my colleague speak to that.

  • 12:35:49

    REEDDavid Steiner, you sit on this commission, called the Kirwan Commission. What's missing?

  • 12:35:55

    STEINERActually there's not much missing. The key is how you stagger the funding over the next years, right. So you have to build a runway. You can't spent it all the first year, because none of the infrastructure is yet available. Secondly, part of the question came to the savings that could be realized. For example, as we put more funding into the support for special needs students, we expect the percentage of those students to actually go down.

  • 12:36:22

    STEINERAnd so part of what happened was the numbers were adjusted as we looked at savings against spending. I think the most important thing to realize is that this ramps up, right, so that by the time we're in 2030 we're spending under the recommendations up to $3 billion extra compared to today. But the funding for the next few years is well short of that.

  • 12:36:47

    THORNTONI am concerned about -- I will say this, I am concerned about the formula that is emerging. For example, the eligibility for concentrated poverty is now set at 80 percent. That, to me, is much too high. If you're only reaching schools with that grant amount with 80 percent, why not 75 percent, I would put it at 62 percent, but those are the tough decisions that have to be made. The multipliers for special ed., for LEP, living earnings for proficiency, what those multiplier percentages are is where the devil is in the details. Those are the tough decisions.

  • 12:37:21

    REEDLet's talk about special education a little bit. Where does it fit into the current recommendations around spending priorities? And what do you think the state's getting right about the way it currently approaches special ed?

  • 12:37:33

    BOSTI think our special education teachers would tell you that there's not enough services for our students. And if we can get to our students -- I'm an elementary school teacher -- if we can get to our students at a younger age with more tutorial services in really addressing their needs, we can make a bigger impact. And hopefully students then can be released from their IEP, their individual education plan. We don't have enough special education teachers or PARA professionals to help with our students right now.

  • 12:38:00

    REEDWe've got a call from Montgomery County councilmember and member of the Kirwan Commission, Craig Rice, on the line. Craig, are you there?

  • 12:38:08

    CRAIG RICEI am, Dan. Thank you so much for having me.

  • 12:38:10

    REEDWell, thanks for calling. What do you have to add?

  • 12:38:15

    RICESure. Well, let me just say that when we look at Kirwan as a whole and we look at what its purpose was, it was designed to do two things. It was designed to make sure that we had adequate funding for our schools, but more importantly that we also did an in depth review in terms of our educational policies as a whole, and how we can really start to make an even more concerted effort to address the achievement opportunity equity gaps that we see in our schools.

  • 12:38:42

    RICEAnd so, you know, we came up with the five focus areas dealing with our high quality teachers and leaders, our college and career readiness pathways, more resources for our at-risk youth as well as governance and accountability and, of course everyone's favorite, an investment in early childhood education. And so really from that perspective I just want folks to know that this is a game changer, because this isn't about just spending more money on education. That's what oftentimes unfortunately people think about our current commission recommendations.

  • 12:39:13

    RICEWhen in reality those recommendations are tied to what we've seen some of the high-performing countries across the world do when it comes to how to invest that money and make sure that it's giving us the best results for our investment. And so from that perspective in benchmarking against some of those high-performing countries that we saw and making those recommendations and structural changes in education might actually see us become more competitive as a nation and be more successful at addressing some of the gaps that we see in our schools.

  • 12:39:46

    REEDIt sounds like you're framing this as, not just about schools, but about a sort of broader community and economic wellness issue.

  • 12:39:54


  • 12:39:55

    RICEIt truly is.

  • 12:39:56

    STEINERRight. It is but again I want to emphasize, there are really tough issues ahead. For example, we are proposing a 10th grade assessment. If you pass it you'll be able to choose really meaningful career and technical options or college readiness options, but the passing score on that test has to be real. It has to be real world and we actually have to aim at getting almost all of our students to that standard. Otherwise we'll start fibbing to ourselves again. We'll start lowering the standard and we won't make the very tough changes we have to make.

  • 12:40:28

    REEDCouncilmember Rice, while we have you on the phone, is there anything else you wanted to add?

  • 12:40:32

    RICENo. Well, let me just say that I agree wholeheartedly. We have to have true fidelity when it comes to making sure that these standards that we're going to hold ourselves to are actually where we are, which is why governance and accountability have to be a key part of this. You know, without that the whole deck of cards or stack of cards falls down and so we really need to make sure that happens.

  • 12:40:56

    RICEBut also at the same time, we also need to make sure that that investment is there as well, because a lot of the things, whether it's expanding services, giving our teachers more resources to be able to make sure that they are the best and brightest for our kids makes, you know, a big difference in terms of whether or not this is successful or not as well.

  • 12:41:17

    THORNTONAnd this is where the discipline comes in politically. We have to make sure it's not an either/or and we don't create an oxymoron on either end. And money is necessary, it's not sufficient. We have generations of underfunding of our schools, particularly in areas that are mostly people of color, and that's generations of funding, decades of underfunding. And so we should not use any particular either/or situation. We have to do both. We must have adequate funding of the education of our children equitably and high accountability and performance expectations for administrators in schools and everyone else. Those two things are not mutually exclusive.

  • 12:41:54

    BOSTIn additional I was going to say what's missing is as we carry out the commissioner's report and their expectations, we have to make sure that the educator voice is heard throughout this. Often things get talked about at a 30,000 foot level and we aspire to do something and we don't actually talk to the practitioners and the parents in our schools and in our communities. And that's one thing that we have to make sure that happens.

  • 12:42:17

    BOSTWe have too many of our schools that the school counselor ratios are astronomical so they can't actually address the needs of the students, or the special education students don't get the services. So we have to make sure the educator voice is heard throughout the implementation of these recommendations.

  • 12:42:32

    REEDSo, Cheryl, as we heard in the last segment, yesterday was "Crossover Day" for the Maryland legislature. Are there any education bills your organization, the Maryland State Educators Association has been advocating for or trying to stop the session?

  • 12:42:45

    BOSTSo this blueprint for Maryland's future is our largest priority to make sure that we get funding for our schools. We can get pay raises for teachers so we can attract and retain. We are also helpful that we can have a bill that at least provides two teachers on the state board, because right now they're prohibited from serving on the state board. And we're also looking at some of the trauma informed education initiatives and restorative justice initiative bills that are going through.

  • 12:43:13

    REEDWe've got another call from another councilmember. This is Councilmember Zeke Cohen in Baltimore City. Zeke, you're on the line.

  • 12:43:20

    ZEKE COHENHey, it's an honor to be with you.

  • 12:43:22

    REEDWell, thank you.

  • 12:43:24

    COHENAnd I would just echo the previous point about the importance of a teacher and parent voice in shaping this policy, but also I would add the importance of student voice. I think that as a former teacher myself, I think that students have to be absolutely critical, have to be centered in this conversation. And when you talk to young people in Baltimore, in Prince George's, in Montgomery County, it's amazing that so much of what they say, much like our teachers, is around we need more counselors, we need more support for our educators. We need more interventions in classrooms and in afterschool programs to make learning safe and vibrant for everyone.

  • 12:44:18

    COHENAnd so I would just echo the importance of practitioners being centered in this conversation. And also add that our students as well need to be front and center as we work towards Kirwan.

  • 12:44:32

    STEINERI want to stress that that is critical. I also want your listeners to understand what the challenge is. We have about an 85 percent high school graduation rate in this state, but we have about 45 percent of those students ready to go on to college and career, meaningful career with anything close to a middle class income. So we are graduating double the number of students, who are actually truly ready for the next stages of their lives.

  • 12:44:59

    STEINERAnd when it comes to those in poverty, African American males, for example in Baltimore, we're looking at proficiency rates of 10 percent, 10 percent, 1 out of 10. So this is a huge challenge and no one should underestimate what we have to face.

  • 12:45:17

    REEDThat's an important point, because activists have criticized the Kirwan Commission for not focusing enough on race and inequality. Where should racial inequality come into the priorities for education in Maryland?

  • 12:45:29

    BOSTIt should be a top priority. And what Councilman Cohen talked about is what our students are asking for. We don't -- you asked me about legislation. We don't need armed teachers. We don't need more armed guards. We need to deal with the students and their needs and their counseling. Community schools is a large part of the Kirwan Commission recommendations, which helps us address the needs of our most impoverished students by building a network. Whether that's a wellness center or additional staffing to help them wrap around services such as afterschool programming and summer school. But we do need more of an equity lens as we look at all of our schools and their funding.

  • 12:46:08

    THORNTONAnd that's why the son, the great son of Maryland, Thurgood Marshall, said in 1954 that we should not provide education to children based upon race for the purpose of discriminating against black children. Thornton Bridge to Excellence came along and said we should not have high expectations about children that are not properly funded. I think Kirwan is saying that we need to fund and hold accountable the vision of Thornton and Thurgood and we must fund that with accountability.

  • 12:46:33

    THORNTONThere's a history in Maryland of discriminating against children of color. It's a long history and this is the context that creates a Baltimore City and a Somerset County for lower income white kids and in Allegany County and some sections of Prince George's County where I live. That history cannot be avoided. The people of Maryland needs restorative justice to address that. So the high expectations that we have coming out of the commission, internationally competitive education must be married with this restorative equity obligation that we have to correct what we did wrong to children.

  • 12:47:07

    STEINERI agree completely. I think one of the great challenges is we dump every social economic decision we've made at the schoolhouse door. We say to teachers and to schools, you solve it all, right. The investment we will make with Kirwan's recommendations are critical. I think at the same time we cannot just pretend that the rest of our tax policies, the rest of our political policies, economic policies somehow get a pass, because the life conditions of these young people isn't only a function of what happens inside the school.

  • 12:47:41

    THORNTONThat's right.

  • 12:47:43

    REEDSo do you have any advice to commission members as they move towards making their final recommendations?

  • 12:47:50

    BOSTI would advise them to keep moving forward, but Governor Hogan, we believe, needs to get onboard and work with the legislature to make sure the funding is put in place. I just would encourage all of the commissioners to keep moving forward. And as Dr. Thornton has said, think about the students and think about their needs and let the political will determine how it gets funded and how it gets accomplished.

  • 12:48:15

    STEINERMy advice to myself is to stick with this message, not take a holiday from it. This is crucial, crucial work.

  • 12:48:22

    THORNTONAnd I completely agree. Having gone through it, the commissioners need to understand that the people of Maryland, as they were with Thornton, are behind the commission. They need to understand that, right. And they need to step forward and continue to be the voice knowing that the people of Maryland support them, support the speaker, support the President. And I think the governor, once he comes around to adopt this, they'll support him also.

  • 12:48:46

    REEDDr. Alvin Thornton is chair of the Prince George's County Public Schools board of education. Thank you for being here.

  • 12:48:52

    THORNTONThank you.

  • 12:48:53

    REEDDavid Steiner is executive director of the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy, and member of the Kirwan Commission. Thanks for being here.

  • 12:48:59

    STEINERThank you so much.

  • 12:49:00

    BOSTAnd Cheryl Bost is president of the Maryland State Education Association. Thanks for being here.

  • 12:49:04

    BOSTThank you for having me.

  • 12:49:05

    REEDWe were also joined by Montgomery County Councilmember Craig Rice. Today's show conversation on Maryland Public Schools was produced by Mark Gunnery and our update on Maryland's new laws was produced by Julie Depenbrock.

  • 12:49:16

    REEDComing up tomorrow we'll look into the popularity of Esports in our region which boasts professional teams, dedicated fan clubs and even a video game gym to develop young players. Talk about an opportunity for education, right? I mean, we didn't talk about technology in schools at all, but that's a pretty big opportunity right there.

  • 12:49:37

    REEDWe'll also learn about the history of D.C.'s first chefs, the cooks and laborers that built the foundation of our region's food traditions. All of those things will be happening tomorrow at noon. I'm Dan Reed sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi.

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