Flunking Maryland's Schools

December 16, 1990

If there was any doubt Maryland does an inferior job educating children in its public schools, this state's first "report card" ends that debate. Out of eight basic standards, Maryland's schools managed to pass just two. In some jurisdictions, the performance was abysmal.

When only 68 percent of the state's students taking a functional mathematics test manage to pass, Maryland's place in a world requiring a skilled work force is in jeopardy. When that level slips to 43 percent in Baltimore City and Somerset County and 57 percent in Prince George's County, it is time for concern.

The State Department of Education and its superintendent, Joseph L. Shilling, issued this report in their crusade to re-energize Maryland's schools. Many county educators have complained because their system flunked most tests. The howls will grow louder next year when Dr. Shilling issues a follow-up report card on Maryland's 1,201 individual public schools, including new tests in reading, writing, language usage and mathematics.

Public schools are under attack. The Linowes commission on state taxation found the situation so appalling it recommended $350 million in new revenue to improve education. A statewide Metropolitan Education Coalition called for a $628 million program to upgrade public schools and give equal opportunity to all students in Maryland. Dr. Shilling weighed in with his own set of accountability standards and financial incentives.

This uproar takes place during unsettled economic times, when no one in Annapolis wants to raise taxes to help schools. It puts members of the General Assembly in an awkward position: chiding local schools for not doing a good enough job but unwilling to stand the political heat to finance major improvements.

Still, Gov. William Donald Schaefer wants to proceed with portions of Dr. Shilling's recommendations -- if money can be found. That won't be easy. The governor and lawmakers will have to rearrange priorities to start improving early education, increase computer use, help the poorest counties deliver basic education services and encourage school-based administration.

Opposition to these changes will be intense. School-based administration, for instance, means less control for centralized bureaucrats. Aid earmarked for individual schools means less money available for teachers unions seeking higher pay. And a tough statewide accountability standard means more intrusion in local schools' affairs.

Maryland has failed to support its public schools with sufficient public funds. Even worse, the state has not insisted upon high achievement standards. That is beginning to change. If Dr. Shilling proves successful, Maryland's future work force will be highly trained and well equipped to lead this state into the next century.

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