New rules for schools can't kill local reforms

Federal bill: President Bush's reform plans ought to recognize the work already done in Maryland.

January 01, 2002

IN NEARLY 1,200 pages of rules, regulations and requirements, the new federal education bill seeks to hold schools accountable for what they teach and what kids learn.

The bill makes a lot of sense for states that have lollygagged and danced around the idea of tougher standards and broad reform. But for states such as Maryland, which are several years and millions of dollars into their own performance assessment programs, the new federal rules represent a glaring and costly interference.

Not to play politics here, but isn't this exactly the kind of federal big-footing Republicans are supposed to be against? Isn't this the same party that just five years ago was talking about abolishing the entire Department of Education to free local jurisdictions from "onerous" regulation?

Don't get us wrong; we know Mr. Bush means well here. Education is one of the few domestic policy areas in which the president has a decent track record.

He created tough standards for Texas schools. He instituted statewide tests and cracked down on slouching teachers and administrators.

But Mr. Bush seems not to understand that Texas - which still ranks near the bottom in a lot of national education categories - wasn't alone in pursuing reform.

Maryland, in particular, is already far ahead of Texas, with programs such as the Maryland School Performance and Assessment Program, which since the early 1990s has reshaped this state's educational landscape.

At best, the president's education bill could have been a harmless redundancy for Maryland, a federal concept to back up local practices. As passed, it's more controlling.

It will force school officials to change the way MSPAP tests are reported and perhaps add tests in the seventh grade. (Kids already are tested in grades two, three, four, five, six and eight.) And the state's teacher certification efforts may not pass muster under the new federal bill, even though Maryland has worked tirelessly to keep qualified instructors in the classroom in the face of a daunting teacher shortage.

The key to preventing the federal bill from distracting or derailing local efforts lies in enforcement. Department of Education officials ought to concentrate more on the spirit of this law than the nitpicky letter of it. They ought to ensure that all states ratchet up accountability, focus more on reading and ensure that certified teachers inhabit all classrooms.

But states such as Maryland should not be penalized for failing to tailor their longtime, sweeping reform efforts to meet boilerplate federal requirements.

This state is as close to a model for state school reform as Mr. Bush and federal education officials are likely to find. The new law should seek to foster - and highlight - that, rather than warp it.

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