After much thought and careful deliberation, I cast a “no” vote in the Senate on the so-called “Kirwan bill,” also known as the “Blue Print for Maryland’s Future” or House Bill 1300. I read and re-read the 140+ page bill closely, not an easy task given its rapid evolution, and tried hard to maintain an open mind, listening to all sides on the debate. I listened intently to those who argued that we need a “paradigm shift,” a totally new, centrally developed, and centrally driven masterplan to control all our public schools. My five children are all alumni of our public-school system, as am I, and with my grandchildren attending public schools for years to come and numerous relatives now teaching in our schools, I have more than a passing interest in the quality of public education.
In this uncertain economy, the immense additional expenditure of around $38 billion and related tax increases necessary to support Kirwan called for careful scrutiny, especially considering that we have just seen six years of record education funding under the Hogan administration. Not surprisingly, much of the debate in the Senate focused on various amendments supposedly designed to delay implementation of elements of Kirwan funding should the economy falter. A number of my colleagues voted for the bill based largely on those measures. However, even if I assumed that Kirwan spending mandates would not result in massive tax increases – a questionable assumption – I decided that the flawed education policy side of the bill compelled a no vote.
Massive and unprecedented spending aside, the public policy side of Kirwan is an affront to common sense. The plan calls for the expansion of an already bloated education bureaucracy, which grew by 60 percent from 1992 to 2015, and increased state control of every aspect of education. For those of us who have spent decades in our schools as students, parents, and grandparents, it’s tough to swallow the notion that bigger government is the answer to school problems. After all, it was big government planning that killed the very effective vocational technical programs that counties are now trying to restore, eroded school discipline, and saddled teachers with the endless paperwork necessary to feed a massive educational bureaucracy. Simply put - our schools need more educating and less legislating.
For years, teachers and parents have asked the legislature to reverse current laws and policies that allow a minority of extremely disruptive students to hold teachers and fellow students hostage, denying the majority a quality education and driving good teachers out of the profession. The massive Kirwan plan only exacerbates these problems with its requirement for new school discipline strategies to be developed by a consortium dominated by folks whose careers and professions are focused entirely on addressing the needs/wants of disruptive students. This will almost certainly lead to greater forced tolerance for classroom disruptions.
Teachers have for years asked the legislature to reduce class sizes. The Kirwan reforms promise increased class sizes that we are told will be managed by more extensively trained teachers teaching larger numbers of children whose disruptive nature will supposedly have been improved by the Kirwan reforms. This theory apparently assumes that disruptive children are caused by inadequate schools, not by lack of parental involvement, bad parenting, drug abuse, and the like.
Teachers have asked for reduced bureaucratic interference in education, but the Kirwan reforms dramatically increase the bureaucratic footprint. Thirty pages of the bill are dedicated to the creation of new Accountability Board and a number of supporting structures. These new offices will parallel and overlap existing boards of education at the state and county levels. This new level of bureaucracy is, for some inexplicable reason, supposed to be more motivated, inciteful, and dedicated to improving education than the old bureaucracy, which will all be left in place, untouched.
Teachers have asked us to reward dynamic, creative, dedicated teachers. The Kirwan plan strangles dynamic teaching with 40 pages of new requirements for teacher qualification & curriculum design.
We were told this bill was modeled after successful school reforms undertaken in Massachusetts and its passage was essential to address the alarming failures in our urban schools. But a recent Boston Globe article highlighted the abysmal failure of the Massachusetts school reforms to address troubled Boston schools where conditions in many schools have deteriorated since the reforms. There was no response from the bill supporters when I read that article on the Senate floor.
Unfortunately, the Kirwan plan is fundamentally flawed. What began as an effort to improve teacher salaries and update the formula by which the state allocates funding to the 24 local school jurisdictions morphed into a masterplan, intended to cure all the ills of the world. Our schools do not need a new grand masterplan to reverse problems created by previous grand master plans.
In our Senate debates there seemed to be general agreement that most of our schools and teachers are doing a wonderful job but that we have some seriously deficient schools in our state and at least one failing system. We do not need another level of state government to address the problems in these specific jurisdictions. Some excellent programs are suggested in the Kirwan plan. Resources should have been made available to implement those programs as needed. It is not necessary to add another level of state government to dictate implementation in every jurisdiction. If a failing jurisdiction is incapable of using state and local funding to educate, the state should take over education in that jurisdiction. It should not micromanage education in every jurisdiction. We should empower and pay our good teachers, not saddle them with yet another grand plan.