Tuesday, August 4, 2020
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Md. school funding commission leader named

Gov Larry Hogan, Republican of Maryland, along with the Democratic speaker of the House of Delegates and president of the Senate, appointed former University System of Maryland Chancellor, Dr William E “Brit” Kirwan as the chair of the Maryland Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education, the governor’s office reports.

Brit Kirwan
William E “Brit” Kirwan (Maryland Reporter.com / CC)

Dr Kirwan is 78 and comes to the post after periods of service as a math professor in Maryland, chancellor of the University System of Maryland for 12 years, president of Ohio State for four years, and president of the University of Maryland, College Park, for nine years.

Although he received high praise from all three bipartisan leaders and although every educational group under the Maryland sun—the teachers’ union, the school superintendents, the Maryland Association of Counties, local PTAs, and even the ACLU—supported the bills that created what is now to be called the Kirwan Commission, the selection of Dr Kirwan to head the commission has received some mild criticism.

First, Maryland students need options. The composition of the commission—four senators, four delegates, school board representatives, superintendents, union representatives, county officials, a university chancellor, representatives from business groups, and parents, etc.—points to an impending set of recommendations that put “college-readiness” above all other goals. That’s because everyone on the commission is likely to have a college degree, and people who achieved success through means other than a college degree are left out.

Such a motive is even written into the new law: the 25-member panel has the duty to recommend how the state can enhance access to “innovative educational opportunities in K-12 education systems” and try to “better prepare students for postsecondary education, the workforce, and the global economy.” Somehow, college is always first on the list.

Furthermore, the phrase “innovative educational opportunities” is unclear and overly general. It could mean more computers, friendlier teachers or police officers in schools that work to encourage inner growth in students rather than harsher punishment, especially for minor offenses. Innovation has many flavors, so it really could mean almost anything commissioners want it to mean. I’ll bet it means computers, though.

This is how schools continue to fix made-up problems that aren’t really problems, just because a solution is easy and looks good on someone’s list of accomplishments. But the lack of innovation is not even a problem in our schools. If our schools are broken — and that’s a mighty big “if” — all the government commissions in the world won’t fix them.

Second, this commission is likely to go against the very principles of efficiency and elimination of waste that are part and parcel of Mr Hogan’s governorship. Finding and cutting waste in the funding formulas could go a long way toward ensuring equity in educational opportunity, not merely expanding innovative opportunities. People in schools always find creative ways to “innovate” for themselves if they’re assured an equal opportunity to be creative.

This commission can be expected, given its charge and its chair, to call for a massive expansion of government spending on toys, “leaders” of innovation and strategic planning, and electronics while focusing very little on the intangibles that make our schools the beacons to the rest of the country they truly are. Not long after Maryland sells out will I be able to walk into a high school in Central Illinois, tell them where I work, and have principals comment on how strong they know the schools are in Maryland.

So yes, recommend a strategy for updating the base per-pupil funding amount and for providing additional funding for special needs students so they’re as prepared as possible for their lives after 12th grade or after they turn 21.

But remember, this state has a poor record of civil rights abuses by employees of the government. In the Baltimore area, the public transportation system is so unreliable that I’m surprised anybody can keep a job. It’s hard for kids to learn when their parents keep losing jobs. It really is. We have problems that need fixing that are way bigger than getting more electronics in our schools.

Now, give me a good teacher and give that teacher an assistant and the autonomy to teach, and I’d say you’ve got something. Hire a bureaucrat or “provost” instead, as USM has become famous for, like the one time the system hired an “assistant provost office of academic innovation, a vice provost for innovation and student success, and an associate provost for learning initiatives,” none of whom had any plans to teach, and you’re wasting my tax money.

Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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