For the past year and a half, I’ve been honored to represent the State Board of Education on the Maryland Commission on Innovation & Excellence in Education, which released its preliminary report this week. Much heavy lifting lies ahead as Commission members work with staff and consultants to put flesh on the bones of our broad policy recommendations and to cost them out.

The Commission has been brilliantly led by former University of Maryland chancellor William (Brit) Kirwan, ably staffed by the state’s Department of Legislative Services, and informed and inspired by its consultants at the National Center on Education and the Economy. But it’s also been constrained in the ways that any gathering of “stakeholders” is, i.e., by the turf-protecting and interest-advancing of groups with huge stakes in the current system. Hence it has oscillated between truly bold ideas for how K–12 education in Maryland should change and defensive angst over the real-world implications of those changes for districts, school boards, administrators, teachers, taxpayers, and more.

Chairman Kirwan has grappled with this dilemma with finesse, humor, humility, and diplomacy, but there’s no avoiding the fact that our preliminary report contains both important accomplishments and worrisome weaknesses. And there’s no way of knowing at this point how successfully we will be able to capitalize on the former and overcome the latter as we work toward a final set of recommendations.

On the plus side:

  • This report does an exemplary job of identifying the weaknesses of Maryland’s current K–12 education system and the reasons that it needs to change. Considering how smugly complacent—and self-deluding—state leaders have been for many years now regarding the actual performance of that system, simply painting an accurate picture is a major achievement. If you don’t read anything else in the preliminary report, read Chapter I, “ A Call to Action.” It might fairly be retitled “A State at Risk.”
  • The report points to half a dozen fundamental changes that, if actually made, would reboot Maryland education and give our state a real shot at producing results for itself and opportunities for its young people that are competitive with the most successful states and countries. These are summarized in the “9 building blocks” on page 19. Every one of them is worth doing—and every one of them represents a major change in how Maryland does things. Because they integrate and harmonize in myriad ways, they also need each other if the new structure they describe to is to be sturdy and durable.

All good. Very good. But unfortunately that’s not the whole story. What commissions like this are good at is reaching agreement at a high level of generality and aspiration, not at making tough decisions, upsetting apple carts, or forcing tradeoffs.

On the minus side:

  • Taken as a whole, our recommendations would add many billions to the cost of K–12 education in Maryland (and would also create some ancillary costs). The state already faces a structural budget deficit—and the new federal tax law is going to be hard on many Maryland taxpayers. Absent a huge increase in state (and perhaps local) taxes, doing what the Commission recommends means making profound tradeoffs that the Commission has thus far been unwilling to consider. (Yes, there’s vague talk in the report about “reallocating” some current dollars, but we’ve shown no stomach—remember, most Commissioners have interests to protect—for doing less of anything.)
  • We are equally vague about any “enforcement” mechanism to compel faithful implementation of the Commission’s recommendations throughout the state. We have not been able to agree to any changes in governance, structures, or power relationships.
  • While I don’t expect the majority of a commission like this to agree with me on structural changes that in my view would benefit the state and its children, I must point out that among the governance structures undisturbed by our recommendations is Maryland’s top-down, district-based control of K–12 education, an arrangement that disempowers parents, punishes schools of choice, creates inequity between counties, and confines the principals of district schools to administrative matters rather than functioning as true executives.

As the Commission now tries to move from the lofty directional nature of our preliminary report to something truly actionable by the state, perhaps we’ll be able to capitalize on our pluses and overcome the minuses. Of course I hope so. But even if we do, even if our final report is a flawless blueprint for a world-class (and affordable) education system, going from “actionable” to “action” will prove a very heavy lift. Overhauling anything as large, complex, and entrenched as a state’s primary-secondary education system requires inspired and sustained political leadership—bipartisan leadership that transcends elections, defies vested interests, overturns the necessary apple carts, and always puts what’s good for kids ahead of what pleases adults. So far, sadly, I haven’t seen that in Maryland. Perhaps that, too, will change. Perhaps.

Chester E. Finn, Jr., scholar, educator and public servant, has devoted his career to improving education in the United States. At Fordham, he is now Distinguished Senior Fellow and President Emeritus. He’s also a Senior Fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution.

Finn served as Fordham’s President from 1997 to 2014, after many earlier roles in education, academe and government. From 1999 until 2002, he was John M.…

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