Photo by Nicole McCann

(Updated May 26, 2020)
The Kirwan Commission has been on the way to updating Maryland’s education funding formula since 2014. This summer marks the fifth year of the process. 
Last legislative session, Maryland legislators passed the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, a jumpstart bill to fund key recommendations from the Commission on Innovation and Excellence (Kirwan Commission). 
Still, the actual discussion on how to fully fund all of the programs across Maryland is just underway via the Funding Formula Workgroup (Workgroup). 
The Workgroup has roughly two and a half months to figure out the funding plan that will change the future of Maryland students for decades to come. Note that revamping Maryland’s very complex formula is a huge task for the members who are new to the Kirwan process (only four of the fourteen are also Kirwan Commissioners).

Here are 5 key points to keep in mind:

1. The Heart of the Matter: Equity

Putting equity into practice means that state resources must support students and districts impacted by opportunity gaps, achievement lags, and chronic underfunding.

Members of the Workgroup must weave equity into every stage of the decision-making process, and students must be at the center of each consideration. This means the state must properly count students so that the Workgroup can design the formula to correctly provide the additional resources that each district needs.
Additionally, accountability for the ways the state supports its successful implementation and specific measures for the range of equity factors (i.e. teacher retention practices targeting diverse representation, etc.) is a must. 

2. The Richest Counties Are Still Getting the Most Education Funding

According to Department of Legislative Services (DLS) and the Kirwan Commission’s own analysis, Maryland has a regressive education funding formula. The Maryland Center for Economic Policy found that more than half of students of color in Maryland attend underfunded schools, while the same is true for only 8% of white students. 

Rich counties receive more education funding than counties with low wealth despite "wealth equalization” measures in the formula. The ability of wealthy districts to contribute more local dollars to their school systems, beyond what is required by state law, is one reason for this disparity. Further, the cut to the “Thornton” funding law in 2008 — which inequitably harmed low wealth districts due to their heavy reliance on state dollars — have deepened the disparity in funding between high and low wealth districts. The state must rework the wealth calculation to ensure that the formula is fair and equitable.

3. The Great Debate: How to Measure Local Wealth

Redevelopment tools like “tax increment financing” (TIFs) impact the real property wealth calculation per pupil. Because TIF packages include tax breaks and because that property is not generating into the City’s bank account, a jurisdiction is protected from counting that property as local wealth. This is a serious situation that makes local wealth calculation much less accurate. There has been extensive debate on when TIF protections should end.

4. Pay Attention to the Formula “Fixers”

Two formula fixers worth reviewing are the Geographic Cost of Education Index (GCEI), which is what Maryland currently uses, and the proposed alternative, the Comparable Wage Index (CWI). If Maryland switches to CWI, by DLS’s own simulations, the result would be to send hundreds of thousands of dollars in state aid to districts with high local wealth, which undercuts the spirit of the equity-driven formula. 

For decades, the low-wealth school districts where the state has failed to meet adequacy targets have included Baltimore City, Caroline, Prince George’s, Somerset and Wicomico Counties. The change to CWI would cause Baltimore City to actually lose substantial funding.
If decision makers are committed to a unified Maryland and believe that all students deserve an excellent education, they should be wary of any proposal that does not meet Maryland’s overall equity intentions.

5. “I do.” Marrying the Formula & Kirwan’s Policy Recommendations

The work to link Kirwan policy recommendations to the formula is expected to be a main topic of the public meeting on August 22

The lynchpin will be the determination of which new policies are funded and where will they fall in the formula (base, weights, and/or separate adjoining formulas). 
According to the current schedule, there is one meeting focusing on the interaction between Kirwan’s interim policy recommendations and the formula before preliminary decisions in early September. It is questionable whether that is enough time to give these critical decisions the attention they deserve.

In closing, there’s a narrow window for decisions on both the formula and the overall recommendations. We are eagerly awaiting the outcomes of the next series of meetings, one of which will include the first public comment opportunity related to the formula on September 19. We are also looking forward to a schedule for the full convening of the Kirwan Commission.  
Stay tuned for those announcements of next steps and how best to engage your elected leaders to ensure full funding of services and programs so that every student in Maryland gets a world-class educational experience. Making real changes to Maryland’s education system to increase equity is not simply a “nice thing to do,”  justice requires it – and full, targeted funding to student needs is required too.