Thornton's false hope

February 16, 2004|By George Liebmann

THORNTON unaltered is the worst thing that can happen to education.

The five-year Thornton program, which would enhance Maryland's public school appropriations by $1.3 billion, is a big mistake. The inadequacy of public high school education is the most serious problem this nation confronts, but Thornton is a case of more means worse. Appropriations for future years should be stretched out and conditioned on reforms.

Every politician knows that reform costs money. Change is threatening, and those who have reason to fear change must be bought off. Thornton buys no reforms at all, and its huge dedication of revenue forecloses serious change for a decade.

How can this be? Wasn't the Thornton legislation the product of an independent study with a wide mandate? The charge to the Thornton Commission to focus on equity among school subdivisions kept it from looking at anything but the allocation of money, and deliberations were driven by the threat of litigation.

Many commission members were vetted by the unions, whose former leader as president of the Maryland State Teachers Association, Karl Pence, later joined Gov. Parris N. Glendening's staff as the governor's education adviser. We know from experience in California and the District of Columbia that large infusions of cash will buy more teachers and reduce class sizes, but not make better teachers.

Spending has increased, but the economic position of teachers has not improved. Unions increase their membership but do not increase the rewards of their members. Indeed, they no longer represent teachers.

The contracts in all subdivisions deny union critics and competing unions the ability to use interoffice mail and have union dues and political action committee contributions withheld from paychecks of their members. A petition signed by one-fifth of all teachers in a county is required for recognition of a union to be reconsidered. Specialized bargaining units for different courses or levels of study are forbidden; there can be no unions of science teachers or high school teachers. Union officers are given generous leaves to engage in union or political activities.

The result is a closed system, which Thornton will not change.

Only three of Maryland's union contracts allow extra pay for scarce disciplines. The single salary schedule ensures that each year the state Department of Education reports an oversupply of certified elementary school teachers and grave shortages of teachers for computer science, the physical sciences, the blind and the physically disabled; it now includes even mathematics.

Baltimore Polytechnic, the city's science high school, has no computer science program because a teacher cannot be found. American high school students are at rock bottom in international comparisons of science and math proficiency.

Special visas import computer programmers from Southeast Asia, India and Eastern Europe, while industries outsource scientific and service jobs abroad.

A program of $10,000 in extra pay for high school teachers in scarce disciplines would cost barely 2 percent of the new funds proposed by Thornton, yet is not included. Rigid seniority provisions will continue to channel experienced teachers away from the neediest schools while four-step grievance procedures render bad teachers irremovable. Gigantic county school systems will make fitful attempts at top-down reform, while both Conservative and Labor governments in Britain have shifted control to principals and school-level boards.

Even in the wealthiest counties there is an explosion in private schools and home-schooling as academic, professional and business people and teachers themselves abandon the public system.

"If you are against Dr. Quack's cancer cure, you are in favor of letting Uncle Julius die. It is an old, old argument." wrote H. L. Mencken in ridiculing a style of discourse familiar in the 1930s.

Many today would equate Thornton with education. But huge indiscriminate appropriations have done little for the schools.

Uncle Julius is still dying, and further infusions of the same medicine will not save him.

George Liebmann is executive director of the nonprofit Calvert Institute for Policy Research, which studies Maryland public policy.

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