Mak­ing Md. school re­form mean­ing­ful

Baltimore Sun - - COMMENTARY - By Bill Fer­gu­son Sen. Bill Fer­gu­son is a Demo­crat rep­re­sent­ing Bal­ti­more City in the Mary­land Gen­eral Assem­bly; his e-mail is bill@bill­for­bal­ti­more.com.

The state’s Com­mis­sion on In­no­va­tion and Ex­cel­lence in Ed­u­ca­tion, which will be chaired by for­mer Univer­sity of Mary­land Sys­tem Chan­cel­lor Brit Kir­wan, is ex­pected to be­gin its work this fall. This im­por­tant de­vel­op­ment presents an op­por­tu­nity for Mary­lan­ders to en­gage in mean­ing­ful con­ver­sa­tion about our school funding for­mula and to lever­age cre­ative ideas for in­vest­ing in our state’s chil­dren to pre­pare them for a rapidly chang­ing fu­ture.

The Bridge to Ex­cel­lence for­mula has been in place since 2002 and has led to his­toric lev­els of funding in our pub­lic schools. That in­vest­ment has paid off: Grad­u­a­tion rates are at an all-time high of 87 per­cent. So, while mem­bers of the Kir­wan Com­mis­sion, as it has come to be known, must hold their ground amid skep­tics who be­lieve that money doesn’t mat­ter in ed­u­ca­tion, they must also build on our in­vest­ments and in­sist that our schools can be bet­ter.

We need a statewide funding model that in­cen­tivizes the re­design of our schools and de­vel­ops the most in­no­va­tive and for­ward-think­ing school sys­tem in the coun­try. A suc­cess­ful for­mula should fo­cus not just on grad­u­a­tion rates and test scores but on five core val­ues that serve as a frame­work to im­prove our hu­man con­di­tion, bring us to­gether and help our chil­dren in­ter­act in schools that are as di­verse and promis­ing as the world in which we live.

First, our funding model must re­ward schools and dis­tricts for in­no­vat­ing to in­crease so­cioe­co­nomic di­ver­sity, which strength­ens the qual­ity of learn­ing for all. We must work col­lab­o­ra­tively — rec­og­niz­ing that ed­u­ca­tion con­tin­ues beyond the school­house door and across tradi- tional ju­ris­dic­tional lines — to im­ple­ment pro­grams and ser­vices that are demon­strated to work best for kids. We need to al­low for more flex­i­bil­ity be­tween lo­cal gov­ern­ments and school boards so they can work to­gether to ed­u­cate the whole child. By cre­at­ing school com­mu­ni­ties with greater so­cioe­co­nomic di­ver­sity, Mary­land will give all chil­dren the op­por­tu­nity to learn as much from each other as they do from their ed­u­ca­tors.

Sec­ond, we must fully fund pub­lic and highly ef­fec­tive pre-kinder­garten for all Mary­land 4-year-olds. Research shows that kids who at­tend pre-K are bet­ter pre­pared for school, bet­ter read­ers, less likely to drop out and more likely to grad­u­ate. At a time when the first-year tu­ition at Mary­land’s pub­lic univer­si­ties is on av­er­age 9 per­cent cheaper than one year of early-age child care, young Mary­land fam­i­lies are strug­gling to make ends meet. Univer­sal pub­lic pre-K is an in­vest­ment that saves our state money in the long run and keeps more money in the pock­ets of Mary­land fam­i­lies while bet­ter pre­par­ing our chil­dren to thrive.

Third, our funding for­mula must be pre­dictable, trans­par­ent and ef­fi­cient. We have to give dis­tricts the in­for­ma­tion they need to pre­pare for long-term in­vest­ments in their schools and ed­u­ca­tors. Ev­ery Mary­land fam­ily knows how hard it is to plan a house­hold bud­get with­out be­ing able to pre­dict in­come. We must not cre­ate un­cer­tainty if we ex­pect lo­cal ed­u­ca­tion sys­tems to de­sign and sus­tain in­no­va­tive op­por­tu­ni­ties for ev­ery stu­dent in their com­mu­ni­ties.

Fourth, we need to more ac­cu­rately cal­cu­late the wealth and poverty of lo­cal ju­ris­dic­tions, and be re­al­is­tic about the in­creased funding that is nec­es­sary in low-in­come com­mu­ni­ties, where our schools must ad­dress the ad­di­tional chal- lenges that kids grow­ing up in poverty face. We can’t sim­ply look at prop­erty val­ues on pa­per to de­ter­mine ju­ris­dic­tional needs, and we shouldn’t pun­ish lower-in­come com­mu­ni­ties for in­cen­tiviz­ing de­vel­op­ment. As we work to­ward elim­i­nat­ing con­cen­tra­tions of poverty that are too com­mon in Mary­land’s com­mu­ni­ties, we must now in­vest more heav­ily and com­pre­hen­sively in schools serv­ing our high­est-need neigh­bor­hoods. Ul­ti­mately, we need a for­mula that fac­tors in a ju­ris­dic­tion’s real wealth and ac­tual funding ca­pac­ity to most ap­pro­pri­ately equip high-need schools with re­sources at greater lev­els to en­sure all chil­dren can realize their po­ten­tials.

Fifth, as the Ho­gan ad­min­is­tra­tion’s un­nec­es­sary with­hold­ing of Ge­o­graphic Cost of Ed­u­ca­tion In­dex (GCEI) funds from Mary­land schools re­vealed, our new funding for­mula must in­clude a ra­tio­nal mech­a­nism for ac­count­abil­ity that doesn’t jeop­ar­dize fu­ture stu­dents. Fis­cal re­spon­si­bil­ity and school sys­tem ef­fec­tive­ness are im­por­tant, but I firmly be­lieve that with­hold­ing crit­i­cal funds as pun­ish­ment for de­ci­sions made by adults only serves to un­justly pun­ish our state’s stu­dents.

The con­ver­sa­tion on school funding presents the great­est op­por­tu­nity for mean­ing­ful school re­form in Mary­land in over a decade. It will take col­lec­tive ac­tion across our state to cre­ate sus­tain­able change for our stu­dents. You can add your voice and ideas on how we can im­prove our schools here: bill­for­bal­ti­more.com/ school_­fund­ing.

With so much at stake, how can we af­ford to re­main silent?

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