2 rivals clash over principal issue - schools

Ehrlich and O'Malley propose ways to reward educators

Maryland Votes 2006

August 30, 2006|By Andrew A. Green and John Fritze | Andrew A. Green and John Fritze,Sun reporters

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. said he wants to pay teachers based on the performance of their students, and Mayor Martin O'Malley proposed huge bonuses for principals who agree to serve in troubled schools, as both candidates for governor clashed again yesterday over how best to educate the state's children, the dominant issue of this year's campaign.

Ehrlich, speaking before the State Board of Education in Baltimore, also unveiled a plan to improve the quality of principals, promising to put $1.6 million in his next budget for a school administrator leadership academy. O'Malley promised he would push for large schools to be broken up into more manageable sizes.

Education, consistently ranked by Maryland voters as the top issue in the state, is the most hotly contested ground in the governor's race. Both candidates have devoted much of their time to trumpeting their commitment to public schools and sharply criticizing each other's policy proposals.

"This has been worked on for well over a year," Ehrlich said of his plan for improving principals. "His plan, I think, has been worked on for well over a day."

O'Malley said Ehrlich's merit pay plan would give teachers a "pittance." While he said he thinks the principal academy is a good idea, he argued that teachers should be rewarded for exemplary work with increases in base salary and in retirement benefits, not through a merit-pay program.

"Those are nice ideas, too. They're about three years and eight months behind when they might have come forward," O'Malley said, referring to Ehrlich's education platform. "Over the last four years, we've had a governor who brings nothing new to the table, who attacks progress when it's being made."

Battle lines

Yesterday's proposals from the candidates did little to redraw the political battle lines in the election. O'Malley, who has the endorsement of the state teachers union, made his announcement at the Towson headquarters of the Teachers Association of Baltimore County. Ehrlich, who has feuded with the teachers unions, was backed by his frequent ally, state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick.

The governor said he wants to spend $800,000 next year to develop a merit pay system, one of the key recommendations of the Governor's Commission on Quality Education, a high-profile task force led by Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele.

It would be one of the first recommendations of the commission to be enacted, but Ehrlich acknowledged that it would be tough to get through the legislature, where the teachers union is influential. He said the idea is "to not only reward good teachers but to reward good teachers as they connect up to performance in the classroom."

Ehrlich spokesman Henry Fawell said the idea would be to add merit raises to the longevity raises that teachers receive.

Ehrlich's suggestion for merit pay drew quick criticism from the Maryland State Teachers Association. Daniel Kaufman, a spokesman for the union, said merit pay is not an effective way to ensure a good teacher for every classroom.

"Research shows that where those types of schemes have been implemented, they tend to divide teachers and other educators rather than uniting them, which is really what we need, more collaboration in the classroom and the school," Kaufman said.

Higher salaries across the board, better pensions and smaller classes would all be better, Kaufman said.

Grasmick said about 10 states have adopted merit pay, and some school districts in Maryland have experimented with it. She said student performance data would enable a rigorous system for merit raises. "We really want to be able to look at all that and integrate it into some reasonable plan," Grasmick said. "It used just to be the principal's evaluations, very subjective, but now we have results. We can look at these results and begin to look at a plan that makes sense."

Big bonuses

O'Malley's proposal yesterday focused on making sure the state's best principals are working in the schools that need them most. His plan would offer $200,000 bonuses -- among the biggest in the nation -- to lure top principals to the state's lowest-performing schools. He estimated that the plan would cost about $5 million a year.

O'Malley said the program would be geared toward underachieving schools designated by the state as "in need of improvement." In 2005, there were 236 such schools, including 95 in Baltimore and 75 in Prince George's County, according to the state education department. O'Malley estimated that roughly half of those schools would take part in the incentive program for principals.

The $200,000 bonuses would be paid out over four years and would be awarded to principals who showed promise at being able to steer the schools out of trouble. O'Malley did not say what measures would be used to judge a school's progress.

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