Education dialogue

September 19, 2005

A commission appointed by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich, Jr. has come up with some interesting, though hardly new, ideas for improving education in Maryland. Asked to look at issues that affect high academic achievement, the commission has offered 30 recommendations that range from the prosaic, such as more parental and community involvement, to the provocative, such as merit pay for teachers and principals. Mr. Ehrlich has announced a meeting in November with the commission and other interested parties to continue the discussion and to further refine a legislative package that he hopes will pass muster with the General Assembly.

Mr. Ehrlich initiated the Governor's Commission on Quality Education in Maryland a year ago and put Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele in charge. Early internal discussions revealed no majority support among the commissioners for vouchers - taking at least one volatile issue off the table.

But the commissioners did endorse more choice-oriented market incentives. They would encourage districts to offer differential pay to teachers - based on experience, willingness to teach in troubled schools and expertise in subjects such as math, science, special education and foreign languages where the demand for teachers is greater than the supply. Similarly, the commission would pay more to principals whose schools realize greater academic achievement, comply with annual requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind law or introduce innovative program improvements.

Merit pay for high-level performance, especially in schools where students are already far behind, may not win endorsement from teachers' unions. But they might find differential pay based on improved student performance, as has been tried with some success in Tennessee, more palatable. The commission also thinks that reforming the pension system and making it easier for more people from other professions to become teachers would help Maryland keep up its roster of qualified teachers.

Some of the recommendations are meant to suggest to local districts how existing or promised money, including Thornton funds, can be used; others would require legislative action. How the various recommendations will be received by educators, parents and legislators is an open question, but starting a meaningful dialogue on these issues is certainly worthwhile.

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