Is is possible to run a loose confederation of 24 school systems without a vast, sprawling bureaucracy? Maryland school superintendent Joseph L. Shilling believes that may be the only way to spur dramatic improvement in public education. And to back up his belief, Dr. Shilling is proposing that his own bureaucracy be cut by 70 percent, from 1,400 education specialists to just 400.
What a relief! An educator who doesn't want to strangle teachers and principals in red tape and regulations. An educator who wants the central state education office to help those on the front lines do a better job of teaching youngsters how to read, write, compute and think. An educator who stresses a creative approach to empower schools rather than trying to accumulate all the power within his own bureaucracy.
Dr. Shilling has gotten the go-ahead from Gov. William Donald Schaefer, who praised him yesterday in his State of the State address. Under the plan, bureaucrats running the state's prison education programs will be shifted to the Correction Division and educators concerned with vocational rehabilitation will be placed within the health department. Only 400 staffers would remain with Dr. Shilling. Their new mission: helping schools teach subjects in the most effective ways possible.
For decades, public schools have been subjected to increasing amounts of bureaucratization that have stifled local initiative and forced teachers and principals simply to follow the dictates of the central office. The result has been a depressing decline in student test scores and a rising chorus of discontent from parents and politicians.
The current buzz-word in education circles is "school-based management." That's what the Barclay School dispute in Baltimore City was all about. That's why Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke recently blocked the reappointment of Richard C. Hunter as superintendent.
What teachers, the principal and parents at the Barclay School wanted; what the mayor wants, and what Dr. Shilling wants to stimulate are individualized learning programs best suited for each of Maryland's 1,201 public schools.
That's quite a challenge. It is an exciting opportunity, one that promises more hope for improved schooling than an endless barrage of bureaucratic mandates. Breaking the stranglehold of administrative educators won't be easy. But Maryland's children have fared very poorly in basic competency tests. Our public schools are failing in their assigned task. Abolishing the state's education bureaucracy may be the first positive sign that state leaders are serious about restoring quality to the classrooms of Maryland.