The Kirwin Commission Recommendations: Fact or Fantasy?

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               Delegate Trent Kittleman has written a very cogent piece addressing concerns that Republicans and tax payers all over the State must understand and be prepared to challenge the fact that history has proven the absolute failure of public officials and the Maryland Legislature to  provide and adequately enforce accountability standards that are necessary to ensure that taxpayers are not merely lining the pockets of school officials with no identifiable return. This article details the sad history of school funding debacles in Maryland.              
The much heralded Kirwan Commission has completed its work, and the General Assembly is currently looking at legislation to enact, and pay for, the recommendations of the Commission, at a 10-year cost of over $32 billion.            
Obviously there is concern in the legislature about where the money would come from.  That is ludicrous! Who thinks it will come from anywhere other than out of the pockets of MD taxpayers. However, essentially being ignored, is the lack of adequate accountability standards.
     The Commission addressed this issue in their report; \”It is imperative that a strong system of accountability be put in place to give the public confidence that its increased investment in pre-K-12 education will lead to a system that performs as well as the best education systems in the world.\”            
The Commission recommended creating an \”independent oversight board of education policy experts to develop a comprehensive implementation plan.\” In addition the Commission recommended appointing Expert Review Teams to conduct hands-on reviews of individual schools and, in order to appear that it actually means business and put some teeth in its program, giving the Oversight Board the “authority to withhold up to 25% of new funds if it finds that the local school system or school is not doing what it should do.

Therein lies the rub, withholding funds has not proven to be adequate to enforce compliance. Why? There is an inherent unwillingness among elected and appointed officials to actually impose serious consequences, particularly if the consequence seems “harsh”. Withholding a portion of State funding seems to be a more acceptable, civilized way to hold people accountable. However even the Kirwan Commission loses its nerve and sees withholding of any funds as too harsh. It states in its report, \”The Commission does not believe that funds should be withheld from any school or district simply because of poor student performance.\” BECAUSE OF POOR STUDENT PERFORMANCE!!! Isn\’t that the bottom line of this report? Everything else is, or should be, ancillary to raising the scholastic performance of students. If poor performance by students doesn\’t invoke the only consequence (withholding funds), then why have consequences at all?

Putting aside the fact that poor student performance is off the table as a measure of success/failure, there is the further question as to whether withholding funds is adequate given that the State has not proven that it has the courage to invoke it.

Will the Legislature have the discipline to enact major changes in this bureaucratic system over a period of 10 years? That depends solely on demonstrating the courage to hold teachers and administrators accountable and the dispassionate execution of consequences. History would indicate a very low probability of this happening!

The catalyst for the effort to help Baltimore City schools (\”City Schools\” or \”BCPS\”) to improve came initially from a lawsuit filed by the City against the State charging that the State was failing to provide the \”thorough and efficient\” or \”adequate\” education to the students in Baltimore City, as required by the Maryland Constitution. 

            The state soon realized that the problem with the underperforming City Schools was twofold: insufficient funding was just one; the City\’s \”failure to adequately manage the school system\” was as serious, if not more so, as the funding shortfall.

            For the next 12 years the State and the Board of City School Commissioners (\”Board\”) attempted to address both issues.  Based on recommendations of the Thornton commission, the State provided an additional $43 million to the City Schools. Meanwhile, the State and the Board made repeated efforts to address the management issues and restructure the system. 

        All their efforts failed!

           How and why the state failed to get the City to implement changes is instructive in showing what might happen now, in any efforts to implement the Kirwan recommendations.

        The first State effort to improve the City Schools began in 1992.

After investigating and analyzing the problems that plagued the City, rather than argue out the issues in court, the State and the City entered into a \”Consent Decree,\” that set forth rules for going forward.

            The Consent Decree provided, essentially, for five things:

  • a significant restructuring of the governance of the City Public School System,
  • the provision of certain additional funding by the State for FY 1998-2002,
  • the development of a plan to increase student achievement,
  • interim and final review and evaluation of progress, and
  • the continuance of jurisdiction by the court

             Time went by without progress; instead, the City seemed uniquely unable to stay within its budgets. The City of Baltimore agreed to make a loan to the City Schools, and on March 17, 2004, the City School Board and the City of Baltimore entered into a City Funding Agreement.

        The funding agreement created a three-person Fiscal Operating Committee to develop and implement a financial recovery plan. That plan was to include a new budgetary process, a schedule for reducing the structural deficit, an affordable downsized staffing model for BCPS, and further cost-saving measures. The Fiscal Operating Committee was unable to implement any of the mandated changes.  The Committee\’s Report noted that the FY 2004 plan to reduce the deficit not only could not be implemented but that an additional deficit was looming!

          \”In July, 2004, a separate panel appointed by Maryland State Board of Education to investigate the BCPS deficit, made its report.  In strong language, the panel condemned the City Schools management.  \”The \’makings of a disaster,\’ it said, were there from the beginning including:

  • no continuity of leadership in BCPS (four CEOs, three CFOs, and at least two CAOs in six years),
  • no system of internal communication,
  • no discipline,
  • no meaningful oversight,
  • a sense in middle management that new initiatives need not be followed because senior management would change,
  • no accountability, and
  • no sanctions for failure to perform

 \”In a system with almost a complete lack of consequence for overspending, the surprise is that the deficit was not even larger.\” 

\”A similar critique of BCPS management, along with positive recommendations for improvement, was rendered by The Greater Baltimore Committee and The Presidents\’ Roundtable, which had been requested by the Mayor of Baltimore and the president of the Board to review BCPS\’s budget process and fiscal management practices.\”

         The General Assembly included what it hoped would be both a carrot and stick to encourage the City Schools to comply.

        \”If the local school system failed to comply with those requirements, the State Superintendent, with the approval of the State Board of Education, was to notify the State Comptroller who, in turn, was to withhold 10% of each installment of State funds payable to the local school system until compliance was effected.

Apparently recognizing that it would be impracticable to immediately apply the prohibition against deficits to Baltimore City, which then was reporting at least a $58 million deficit, the Legislature provided, in an uncodified §4 of the Act, . . . [they] effectively gave Baltimore one year more than was given to the 23 other local school systems to eliminate any deficit it might be carrying.\”

Notwithstanding the threat that the State could withhold 10% of the funds appropriated for them, the City Schools used a common political ploy to avoid being accountable. 

        They proposed cuts to high-profile programs — eliminating systemic summer school for at-risk children, increase class size, eliminate guidance counselors and encourage the retirement of skilled teachers – all calculated to inflame the parents

         It worked. 

        The Bradford plaintiffs filed a complaint, arguing that these cuts \”would reduce the educational opportunities available to the City students and suggested ways to get more funding, including, accelerating the phase-in of the Thornton funding, \”relax the requirement that the Board repay $34 million of the $42 million loan in August, 2004, and that the parties \”alter\” BCPS\’s plan to eliminate its structural deficit within two years.\”

        The State filed a reply to the Complaint, asking the court to find that the State aid as proposed would \”satisfy the constitutional standard of adequacy.\”  The State also asked the court to \”order such additional restructuring of BCPS in order for the system to function efficiently and effectively.\”  

\”Following a four-day evidentiary hearing, . . .the court adopted most of the proposed findings submitted by the plaintiffs and virtually none of those proposed by the State.\”

The circuit court virtually instructed the State Legislature to appropriate more funds for the Baltimore City Schools in the amounts requested by the City Schools.

            The Court of Appeals (in Maryland v. Bradley) left no doubt that the circuit court had overstepped its authority in ordering the legislature to provide more funding to the City Schools. It surmised:              \”Indeed, to continue to permit school systems, through deliberate or negligent conduct, to become fiscally irresponsible and insolvent, as BCPS became, would be a breach of its solemn responsibility to both the children and the taxpayers of the State.\”

The material and the quoted sections of this article are taken from the Maryland Court of Appeals case,  MARYLAND STATE BOARD OF EDUCATION v. Keith A. BRADFORD, et al., Decided: June 09, 2005.

        The Bradford lawsuit is still open and remains under the authority of the stateʼs Circuit Court.  No further progress in improving the schools in Baltimore City has occurred.

I fear the same outcomes in the implementation and accountability under the Kirwan Commission findings. Do you, who must fund this boondoggle?

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