LAUREL – Dr. Alvin Thornton recalled a time when Prince George’s County Public Schools (PGCPS) was the cream of the crop. In 1992, the county had high performing schools and education officials worked specifically with low-performing schools, as everything looked to be in a positive trend.
Since then, the state of Maryland has been attempting to find solutions to provide the best education possible to all of its students.
PGCPS Board Chairman Thornton joined At-Large Councilmember Calvin Hawkins on Dec. 7 at the Laurel Branch Library to discuss why the recent recommendations by the Kirwan Commission are the best next step forward for education in the county.
“Our education funding system is regressive,” Thronton said. “We are the wealthiest state in the nation, but our education funding system is regressive…community wealthy should not be the way we access funds for education.”
The session was the second of three “Conversations with Calvin” discussions on the topic to address what the Kirwan Commission does.
The Kirwan Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education is a multi-year proposal that uses research to reform education policy in the state and find different ways to fund various parts of the system through county and state funding.
This past year, the Commission gave PGCPS about $53 million. The money was used to address teacher salaries, full-day Pre-K programs, support for students with disabilities and extra instruction tutoring.
Before the start of the legislative session in January, the Commission announced that $4 billion of state dollars was handed out in 10 years.
It would divide into five categories: early childhood education (Pre-K), the addition of more merit-based profession programs, changes to curriculum that allows for students to prepare for college or workforce certification, additional support for lower-performing schools and establishing accountability for continuing underperforming schools.
According to Thornton, the final number is flexible based on the metrics used and how much state and county taxes should be spent, which is essential for state residents to know. The 2020 report states that Kirwan would give Prince George’s County $931.7 million that would be spread out in 10 years.
“People are going to ask how much (will) your taxes will go up?” Thornton said. “The question is how high that floor should because your cost of living will be lower and that is the political game. So to those who say we cannot afford it, tell them ‘no,’ and to have these discussions.”
However, the amount of money being discussed by the Kirwan Commission has already created problems in Annapolis, leading to Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan to announce Community and Local Accountability for Struggling Schools (CLASS) Act of 2020 that would allow local leaders to take over low performing schools. Details on the cost of the plan were not released.
Thornton said he was not impressed Hogan’s attempt of legislation ignores the work done by Kirwan, which forces the Maryland State Department of Education to take over and monitor those schools for a certain time period.
The weakness of the Kirwan Commission’s report is the lack of knowledge people have about it and how it releases its funding, according to Thornton. Hawkins agreed, saying that in a meeting with State Del. Alonzo Washington (D-22) about education, he was not as well informed on the topic as his colleagues were.
“He was sharing information, and I just sat there,” Hawkins said. “As an elected official, if I am that confused and far off about what is going on and it was very parochial…It was so important what (Washington) said and I had to do my part to get the community involved, so they understand the investment that we have to make.”
Thornton’s presentation included a look into the history of education funding for Prince George’s County, starting with the Supreme Court’s decision in the Brown v. Board of Education case of 1954 when Associate Justice Thurgood Marshall declared “our children have a fundamental right to equitable and excellent educational opportunities.”
In 2002, Thornton was one of the key figures in Bridge to Excellence in Public Schools Act, which based state funding per student depending on property value and income levels. Since 2008, Maryland dropped in educational achievements, Washington said, adding that the bill did not live to its potential because of the lack of funding, a fear that could happen to Kirwan.
“Our schools were never fully funded based on the work he did back in 2000,” Washington said. “For the last 19 years, we have been underfunding our school systems by $2,000-$3,000 per student in Prince George’s County. We are not funding our students correctly.”
If funded correctly, Kirwan will even out the playing field for county students, Thornton said, stating that both Montgomery and Prince George’s roughly spend the same amount of money per student at $16,000. However, because socioeconomic issues like poverty, student demographics, and environmental developments, PGCPS focuses on other areas that address student needs that are not academic-related.
However, there are still questions that remind us about the viability of any of these plans solving current problems in the school system. Malvery Smith, a fifth-grade teacher at Oaklands Elementary School, said while she found the conversation informative, there was no clear answer to her questions addresses class sizes.
“We want our kids to learn,” Smith said. “But it is impossible that with all things in place to do it, I do the best I can. I go to school and leave out of there at 6 p.m., and we are out at 1:55, but I still have to do my work for my kids.”
Oxon Hill High School teacher Ashley Montgomery says he understands it is a process to fix all the problems in the school system. However, he said making sure that all schools use their Kirwan funding appropriately is key in making the legislation work.
“What’s more important as well is the accountability measures in place to make sure that when they send the money there, that is used to support the kids that need it,” Montgomery said.
For Kirwan to work to the degree that it will improve education standards in the county, residents need to come together to discuss forms and ask questions, Thornton said. If funding needs to be reallocated or lessened, education officials would know based on what the public is saying.
“These things are not the only solutions to the problems in education,” Thornton said. “Nothing is going to ever substitute strong school-level parent and local government involvement in the schools.”
The final “Conversations with Calvin” event on the Kirwan Commission Report has been postponed. It was scheduled to take place on Dec. 12 at the Southern Regional Technology and Recreation Complex in Oxon Hill.