(March 27, 2020) Maryland will see major changes in public education as the House and Senate passed the Blueprint for America’s Future, commonly known as the Kirwan bill, just before the General Assembly adjourned early on Wednesday, March 18.
The legislation awaits Gov. Larry Hogan’s signature, but that could be delayed because of the coronavirus outbreak. He could also choose to let the bill go into effect without his signature.
Some of the highlights of the ambitious package are free preschool for 3-and-4-year-olds living at 300 percent below the poverty level, a pay raise for teachers, college- and career-readiness standards, vocational education and allocated funding for counties.
Delegate Wayne Hartman (R-38 C) expressed frustration that the bill was passed during the coronavirus pandemic.
“The only way I could summarize, it was irresponsible by the General Assembly to continue pushing that bill and putting that burden on the state without a funding formula in light of a health pandemic that’s having major impacts on our economy,” Hartman said.
He said there were “exit ramps” if the state economy cannot fund Kirwan. One of those limits per-pupil spending during times of financial downturn if projections are 7.5 percent below what is expected.
“I don’t even know if a pandemic such as the coronavirus will put our economy into the degree that’s in the bill, as far as allowing this exit ramp to be enacted,” Hartman said. “The Senate did slow down implementation of some of the aspects of Kirwan, which will delay the cost, but with all that said, my biggest concern was this legislation getting pushed through in very poor timing.”
He held that his biggest concerns were the lack of local control, no help for teachers controlling the classroom environment and the unfair funding formula. Hartman said that he was frustrated that Baltimore City and Prince George’s County received financial relief, while Worcester’s relief was minimal.
“If we want to be serious about this, I think every child in Maryland should be treated the same, regardless of where they live,” Hartman said. “Why [does] a child in Worcester County require less of a commitment in funding than another child in the state?”
He added that Worcester always funds above the maintenance of effort, but suggested that the county could decrease that to the minimum required.
“Part of the funding the state is providing is going to be included in the maintenance of effort, so if you take all that into consideration, Worcester County can get through with very little impact as far as direct expense from the county,” Hartman said.
Sen. Mary Beth Carozza (R-38) said she also did not support passing the Kirwan bill in light of the coronavirus pandemic.
“It requires tax increases to pay for it, which is why I stood up on the Senate floor reading text messages from my constituents imploring the legislature not to pass tax increases,” Carozza said.
She said the tax increases should not be implemented during a national public health crisis and time of economic uncertainty. Two improvements Carozza noted that the Senate added were to provide wrap-around behavioral health services and the potential pause on Kirwan during a national emergency.
For the behavioral health services, a student with either behavioral health issues, a certain family situation or other learning needs would be identified earlier.
“There would be coordination between these different services that are offered at the local level,” Carozza said. “Therefore, if you can start to meet the needs of the student on the early end, you may then be able to maximize that child’s school performance as well as preventing that student from becoming a disruptive force in the classroom in the future.”
Although she said that was an improvement, Carozza maintained that the bill did not go far enough to give teachers more control over the classroom and disciplinary powers.
Vince Tolbert, chief financial officer for Worcester County Public Schools, said that the elements of the Kirwan bill, such as all-day preschool and additional funding for special education, teacher salaries and school-provided meals are good, but that Worcester is already doing some of those things. The provisions the new law could add to what the county is already doing could have a high cost, he said.
“Part of the bill wants to increase teacher salary to $60,000 a year over the next several years, so how that’s going to be implemented is a concern,” Tolbert said. “All salaries are negotiated with our teacher’s union and our support staff.”
Another issue is creating all-day preschool programs.
“We’re currently evaluating the buildings to see which ones would need additional space,” Tolbert said. “In several schools, we feel like we’re going to be fine. In a couple of schools, it may be an issue with additional space needed.”
Tolbert pointed out that even without all-day preschool, 66 percent of preschoolers in Worcester programs are ready for kindergarten, which is the highest in Maryland.
He said the schools will not know exactly how much funding they need until the new provisions are implemented.