Md. education leaders see good in Bush plan

But Grasmick, Benzil criticize funds to `follow' students

January 24, 2001|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

Maryland education leaders yesterday gave good marks to President Bush's education package, with one glaring exception:

Vouchers.

The president's 28-page proposal, "No Child Left Behind," doesn't mention vouchers by name, but the plan is to allow federal money to "follow" students to public or private schools of their parents' choice if their home schools fail three years in a row.

"I think vouchers would be debilitating to the public schools," said Nancy S. Grasmick, Maryland state schools superintendent. Philip S. Benzil, president of the state Board of Education, agreed, saying a voucher scheme "is the equivalent of taking food from the less poorly fed and giving it to the better fed."

Grasmick also questioned the "calculation" of Bush's scheme, which provides vouchers of about $1,500 a year. "Where is $1,500 going to buy tuition?" she asked. But since Bush's plan would be part of the reauthorization of the federal government's major school compensatory program, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, Maryland might have no choice but to live with vouchers - if they're approved by Congress.

Most of Bush's package, however, was welcomed by the Maryland leaders, particularly because it includes a number of financial inducements for which the state would be eligible without having to make major changes.

In calling for yearly testing in grades three through eight, for example, Bush said the federal government would pick up half the tab. That was welcome news in a state that tests in every grade but the seventh. And Maryland already has in place a widely praised accountability scheme, the decade-old Maryland School Performance Assessment Program, that the officials said is hand-in-glove with Bush's proposals.

"Maryland has the key elements in place," said June Streckfus, executive director of the Maryland Business Roundtable for Education. "We have high standards, a rigorous assessment system and accountability. In fact, except for a much different kind of test, we look very much like Texas."

Much of the Bush package is patterned after programs in the former governor's home state. He would provide $5 billion for a "Reading First" literacy initiative aimed to get the youngest children on track at the beginning of their academic lives. The program, said Grasmick, dovetails with efforts in Maryland to install all-day kindergartens and expand preschool programs for 3- and 4-year-olds.

The one part of Bush's plan on which Maryland is out of position is his proposal for a "charter school homestead fund" to create or expand charters, which are independent public schools created by contract with teachers or community groups as alternatives to failing schools.

"We have a long way to go on charters," said Christopher T. Cross, former president of the state Board of Education, who heads the Council for Basic Education in Washington. "We have no law authorizing charters, and Maryland has been generally chilly toward them."

Maryland's lack of charter school legislation makes the state ineligible for federal aid already available. But inducements in the Bush plan might be irresistible.

"In education, as in most other endeavors, money counts," said Cross. "Bush is putting a lot of money out there, and that's going to cause some people to re-examine their principles."

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