The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Maryland’s long-planned, $4 billion schools overhaul in jeopardy because of pandemic

Chris Coley, 19, talks with Deborah Sewell, who teaches noncredit remedial reading at Montgomery College, during class in February in Takoma Park. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)
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In mid-March, Maryland’s two legislative leaders solemnly met to do triage. What must they rescue before the coronavirus pandemic shut down the General Assembly?

Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City) and House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County) refused to leave without enacting an enormous education overhaul aimed at fixing generations of inequity in public schools.

“There was no question in my mind or Bill’s mind that we had to get this done,” Jones recalled this week.

The bill passed by veto-proof margins before the legislature rushed out of town weeks early.

But the sweeping schools reform effort, known as Kirwan, is in limbo nevertheless.

A tax package Jones and Ferguson shepherded through to pay for the biggest pieces of the reforms was based on assumptions that economic activity would generate hundreds of millions of dollars in new revenue.

The pandemic has turned those assumptions upside-down.

“At the end of the day, we can only do what we can pay for,” Ferguson said this week. “And we’ll have to adjust.”

The state has spent nearly $2 billion responding to the coronavirus and is on track to lose nearly $3 billion in revenue by the end of June. The river of money that casinos pumped into public education has dried up.

Gov. Larry Hogan (R), long a critic of the education plan’s eventual $4 billion annual price tag, has until Thursday to decide whether to veto the Kirwan legislation and accompanying tax package.

Even if he doesn’t, the legislation says reforms will not take effect if state tax revenue drops by 7 percent or more.

Absent a dramatic rescue package from the federal government, the state is projecting a 15 percent decline in revenue. Losses that large would stop Kirwan in its tracks.

“The federal government is either going to protect us or it won’t,” said state Sen. James C. Rosapepe (D-Prince George’s), a prominent advocate for the reforms.

At the same time, the Democrats who spent years drafting the education plan say the prolonged schools shutdown and the haphazard implementation of distance learning illustrate the unacceptable inequity they are trying to resolve.

“It is shining a light on the huge disparities between the haves and the have-nots,” Jones said. “Some students are learning at home on a computer in a safe environment with three meals a day. But many — many — are not.”

Ferguson, who started his career as a Teach for America fellow in Baltimore, said it is hard to contemplate what will happen if Maryland does not implement the Kirwan initiative.

“Once we come out the other side of this, we will have some children who have gone six months with zero academic instruction,” he said. “We as a society have never experienced that. If we do not have a plan on the back end to raise achievement, it will be hard for us to ever recover.”

From heralded to mediocre

Before the coronavirus shuttered schools and universities across the country, Deborah Sewell stood in a classroom in suburban Maryland and posed a question: “Every paragraph has a what?”

When no one responded, she asked again. A few students kept their heads down. Others stared up at the ceiling.

Still no answer.

“Every paragraph has a main idea,” Sewell said.

Her students were adults, mostly recent high school graduates from Montgomery County, Md., a well-regarded public school system in a state whose schools were once heralded as among the best in the country.

But that reputation has largely collapsed. Recession-imposed spending cuts 12 years ago throttled resources, globalization raised the bar for graduates to compete, and shifting demographics increased the population of students who need extra intervention to succeed.

Sewell’s noncredit, “developmental” reading and writing class at Montgomery College represents a harsh reality: Fewer than half of Maryland kindergartners enter school ready to learn, and fewer than 40 percent of high school graduates are prepared for college or a career.

Poverty, wealth, fairness: Where should students go to school?

Policymakers say the state is in the middle of the pack in a country that performs at a mediocre level on the world stage. Even before the pandemic, they warned that Maryland was headed toward an “economic calamity” if it did not better equip the next generation to compete — not just with graduates from Massachusetts or New Jersey, but with workers from Singapore and Switzerland.

“We do not have a good education system. It’s underserving our kids,” said William “Brit” Kirwan, chancellor emeritus of the University System of Maryland, who led the three-year effort to devise a solution.

That work formed the backbone of what’s become known as the Kirwan plan. Over the next 10 years, it would provide free prekindergarten statewide, significantly boost teacher pay and standards, and give extra money to schools with large populations of poor children.

In many ways, the plan is something of a second chance, coming more than a decade after changes triggered by a civil rights lawsuit on behalf of black children in Baltimore City and poor students across the state.

Even if Hogan vetoes it, Democrats say, they have the votes to override him when they reconvene in January — and the moral obligation to do so.

“We’re among the wealthiest states in the nation, but we have these pockets [of failure],” Jones said. “Shame on us.”

Unlike past reform efforts, which delivered resources with wide local discretion on how to spend them, the Kirwan proposal dictates how the billions of new dollars should be used.

More than a third of schools would be designated “community schools” that would provide whatever is necessary to help students be ready to learn. A principal could decide to install a washer and dryer for homeless students to do laundry, or design English classes for the parents of Spanish-speaking children.

A second-grader behind in reading could get a tutor right away, rather than wait until the disparity compounds in higher grades. High school juniors could be offered job training in ­high-demand fields such as software coding if they don’t intend to go to college.

Top high schoolers would be recruited into teaching and trained at the state’s top universities. In 2027, first-year teacher salaries would climb to $60,000, an attempt to put teaching on par with other higher-paid professions, such as architecture and engineering.

The goal is to help students like Isaiah Rodriquez, 19, of Silver Spring. He graduated from Montgomery Blair High School in June unable to do the work required in college. On that day in Sewell’s Room 328, he stared blankly at his notebook, struggling to begin a self-reflective essay.

Rodriquez, who is unemployed, said he wishes Blair had better prepared him.

“They speak less about college and more about graduating,” he said. “They are just pushing you to graduate.”

John B. King Jr., a former education secretary under President Barack Obama who lives in Maryland, said the Kirwan overhaul would be more expansive than what has been done by any other state except Massachusetts, which in 1993 enacted an expensive effort to recruit better teachers and boost resources for poor districts.

What sets Maryland’s proposal apart, King said, is the scope and scale of the effort, and that the state is attempting to do all the reforms at the same time.

It has “tremendous potential,” he said, “to close some of the very real opportunities gaps for low-income students and students of color.”

Op-ed by John King: Can Maryland follow Massachusetts’s school-funding model?

A second chance at success

The state has tried to bridge the gap before.

Twenty-five years ago, Westside Elementary in Baltimore was the epicenter of a modern civil rights injustice, and Keith Bradford was the dad crusading to fix it. He was appalled that his son’s kindergarten classroom lacked even the most basic resources: More than 30 students shared four math workbooks, lights flickered, and the desks were marred with graffiti that dated back years.

While about 38 percent of students statewide scored “satisfactory” on standardized eighth-grade math tests in 1994, the figure in Baltimore was just 7 percent. Bradford, a night manager at Sam’s Club, became PTA president at Westside and an agitator who complained loudly and passionately to the city school board.

The American Civil Liberties Union recruited him as the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit alleging that children in Baltimore were being denied the adequate public education promised by Maryland’s constitution. A judge eventually agreed.

Under court supervision to provide adequate resources to all students, state lawmakers launched a giant effort in 2002 to equalize funding disparities.

Between 2003 and 2008, under the Bridge to Excellence Act, annual state spending on public schools tripled, from $231 million to $691 million. Full-day kindergarten was required everywhere. Poorer jurisdictions got more aid than wealthier ones. And the state contributed extra money for every special-education or non-English-speaking student.

The investment helped catapult Maryland into the top of the national rankings of the prominent journal Education Week. Graduation rates improved. So did test scores. Politicians touted the state’s schools as the best in the country.

And then the Great Recession hit, prompting funding cuts of more than $400 million in a single year. Plans to keep pace with inflation were scrapped.

In the meantime, Maryland’s student population shifted. In 2003, 31 percent of students qualified for free and reduced-price lunch programs. In 2018, 43 percent did. The portion of children who don’t speak English as their primary language spiked faster than the national average.

Governments are trying to address inequity. But the path forward isn’t clear.

In Prince George’s and Montgomery counties, home to a third of Maryland’s public school students, English was a second language for 1 in 3 students. In Baltimore, the share of students living in poverty grew to 80 percent.

At Westside, enrollment dwindled. By the time the school closed in 2016, not a single student had a passing score on the state’s standardized reading and math tests.

That same year, the state launched a commission, headed by Kirwan, to evaluate how it funded schools.

Employers were telling lawmakers that Maryland graduates weren’t skilled enough for the jobs they had open. Soon, the commission’s mission expanded.

“Whatever we do, we’re going to have to live with it for another 20 or 30 years,” state Sen. Antonio L. Hayes (D-Baltimore City) said recently, standing in the abandoned remnants of his first-grade classroom at Westside. “If we’re just trying to bring kids now on par with today’s standards, they’re not going to be able to compete 20 years from now.”

High stakes, tough sell

The effort to sell the initiative hasn’t been easy.

Some key business leaders called the retooling of schools essential; others denounced it as outrageously expensive.

One economist predicted that the reforms would pay for themselves before today’s toddlers graduate from high school — saying higher-skilled graduates would earn more money, which would result in more taxes paid and less need for social service programs. Another policy group claimed that the effort could shove the state $33 billion in debt.

“We’re competing across the globe. And the winners will be the ones that set up the civic infrastructure to prepare generations for that,” Ferguson told a small group of business owners in Prince George’s County months ago.

He ended his pitch simply with, “We need you.”

The audience did not appear convinced, and that was before the virus prompted economic collapse.

David Harrington, a former state senator from Prince George’s who chairs the county Chamber of Commerce, said he stands with the majority of Maryland residents who believe that teacher pay is too low, students should receive job training, and prekindergarten should be expanded to 3-year-olds.

“We probably should have been doing much of this a long time ago,” said Harrington, who attended the meeting with Ferguson. “The question then becomes how do we pay for it — and do we pay for it simply by adding taxes, taxes, taxes?”

Amid a wave of opposition, a proposal to generate revenue by expanding the state sales tax to apply to professional services was killed. Lawmakers approved a new tax on digital ads for companies such as Google and Facebook; digital goods, including Hulu, mobile phone apps, movie purchases, software downloads and video games; and car shares, including Uber and Lyft.

But they put off decisions about how to pay for the program after 2025.

Comptroller Peter Franchot (D), long a critic of the cost of the plan, said this week that it also has become outdated.

“It’s not the fault of the architects of the Kirwan plan, it’s just everything has changed,” he said. “The economic damage is going to take years to repair.”

Jones, Ferguson and other Democratic legislative leaders say the plan was built in a way that can accommodate that reality, with the bulk of the overhaul’s expenses starting five years from now.

At that point, they believe, the economy will have recovered enough to pay for the training of its future stewards.

“This isn’t just about making our schools work for every child,” Jones said. “This is about ensuring Maryland’s future economy has the workers and the leaders trained to face the next crisis.”

Sewell, the Montgomery College teacher, said the expensive overhaul is “the only way for students to get the type of education that they need.”

Many of her students made great strides at the beginning of the semester, she said.

But then the school canceled in-person instruction. And after spring break, only half the class retrieved their email and joined Sewell on a conference call to go over the agenda for learning online for the rest of the semester.

“Now we’ve got to get them refocused on a different learning platform,” Sewell said.

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