Steele pushes market-style schools changes

Suggestions from panel he led include merit pay

Report `map for the state board'

Ideas have potential to anger teachers unions

September 15, 2005|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele began a push yesterday for merit pay for teachers and an overhauled pension system, saying a blue-ribbon panel he led has determined that market-style reforms are necessary to improve the recruitment and retention of educators.

The recommendations, part of a report from the Governor's Commission on Quality Education, stem from a yearlong study designed to ensure that money from the landmark education funding formula that lawmakers approved four years ago is spent wisely. Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. promised yesterday to make the report a road map for his administration.

Some of the recommendations, such as increasing parental involvement in education, are not likely to be controversial. But others, such as changes to teacher certification and scrapping uniform salary schedules, have become the target of criticism from teachers unions.

"It's opening up the doors and windows of education and letting some really creative ideas that are out there come in," Steele said.

Maryland schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick said that other states have tried some of the ideas in the report but that none has produced so comprehensive a plan. She said she will begin meeting immediately with administration members, teachers groups and others to transform the recommendations into programs, regulations and legislation.

"We have a very solid foundation in Maryland, and this is ratcheting it up to another level," Grasmick said.

The report is arguably the most high-profile task Steele has undertaken. Working with 29 business leaders, educators, activists and lawmakers, he traveled to every county in the state and met with hundreds of students, parents and administrators.

Not all commission reports yield many results; an Ehrlich-commissioned panel on government efficiency led by former Gov. Marvin Mandel yielded few concrete changes, for example. But Ehrlich said yesterday that the education findings will be of overarching importance to his administration.

"This is a road map for the state board. It is a road map for ... our administration," he said. "You will see tangible byproducts of this process."

Regardless of how many of its provisions Ehrlich is able to implement in the coming months, the report could loom large in next year's elections. If, as expected, Steele runs for the U.S. Senate next year, he can point to it as an accomplishment made outside of the governor's shadow.

But it also has the potential to anger teachers unions, which have often been at odds with Ehrlich and have been some of the most effective organizations in the state in mustering support or opposition to candidates.

"This report does a dismal job of providing workable and effective solutions," said Maryland State Teachers Association President Patricia A. Foerster.

The report calls for instituting statewide minimum salaries but basing additional compensation on teacher quality and other factors. Educators in subjects such as math and science would be paid more, as would those who teach in more difficult schools. The change would affect new teachers and veterans who are interested in switching from the uniform compensation system.

According to the study, such a system would attract the best teachers to the schools. But Foerster said such a move would make some educators second-class citizens.

"Are we going to say that because a kindergarten or preschool teacher wears overalls and sits on the floor with the kids, they are not worth as much as the science teacher who wears a white coat and stands behind a lab table?" she said.

The commission recommended scrapping the traditional pension teachers earn in favor of one that allows them to take their benefits with them if they change states or careers. That change would also be phased in.

And the report suggested that the state consider alternative methods of certification to encourage professionals in other fields to become teachers.

But Foerster said those changes ignore the need for educators to know the art of teaching, not just the subject matter.

William M. Ekey, principal of C. Milton Wright High School in Harford County and president-elect of the Maryland Association of Secondary School Principals, said he was pleased with the merit pay and pension recommendations. But he said financial support from the administration would determine "how valuable the recommendations are."

Steve Johnson, parent of a junior at Annapolis High School and an education consultant, said the report strikes him as less child-centric and "more of what matters to grown-ups."

"Some parts of it will be modestly useful," he said. "Nobody five to 10 years from now is going to say, `Ya know, Maryland really got it right, and the reason why they got it right is the report by the Governor's Commission on Education in Maryland.' It's not good enough to do that."

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