issues education

War of Words

Ehrlich and O'Malley have different answers to public's concerns about the quality of Maryland education

September 17, 2006|By Liz Bowie Sun Staff

The statistics haunt educators: Large numbers of students now graduating from high school struggle to write a correct English sentence in their college classes. Only about half of all African Americans graduate from high school. And in the suburbs and rural areas, too few students are being pushed into rigorous math and science courses, leaving the nation unprepared for a competitive world.

Even in Maryland, where there are some great public high schools with students gobbling down a dozen Advanced Placement classes and breezing through Calculus II, thousands of high school students failed the statewide competency exams. And they weren't just in Baltimore.

Maryland voters say improving teaching in grades kindergarten through 12 is an urgent priority as the November election nears. Education was the No. 1 priority in two statewide polls this summer.

That means the educational views of Martin O'Malley and Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. could be pivotal as voters decide who will lead the state for the next four years.

While both candidates believe Maryland faces serious education challenges, there are fundamental differences between their educational philosophies, recent Sun interviews reveal.

Ehrlich would encourage more private partnerships and introduce more competition into the educational process. He likes charter schools, merit pay for teachers and vouchers.

O'Malley's focus is on strengthening traditional public schools, improving teacher pensions and attracting highly qualified principals to struggling schools with signing bonuses. He supports charter schools, but doesn't believe they are the solution.

Their differing beliefs mirror a larger national debate that sometimes cuts across party lines as school leaders across the nation attempt major reforms.

Everyone agrees that significant improvements in public education are needed; the federal No Child Left Behind law had the support of legislators from both parties. There are inner-city Democrats who believe in charter schools as the last hope for their children and Republican governors who are not enthusiastic about No Child Left Behind because they see it as the federal government interfering with the rights of the states.

Conservatives have generally supported charter schools and other programs like vouchers that introduce competition into schools. They are not friends to the teachers unions.

Liberals, on the other hand, say such an approach weakens public schools. They have been less enthusiastic about federal testing and accountability measures when they require changes in schools that the feds don't fund.

Views on vouchers, charter schools and No Child Left Behind clearly separate the two Maryland candidates.

"I love any freedom initiative, whether you call it a voucher or not, that allows kids to escape a failing school," Ehrlich said in an interview in his office. While he said he supports the use of vouchers, he does not believe that he would be able to convince the state legislature to go along with any voucher plan. So he will not introduce one, he said. "It is just not germane given the orientation of the Maryland General Assembly," he said.

Very few other states and cities have a voucher or limited voucher system that gives public money to children to attend a private school. Milwaukee, Ohio and the District of Columbia are exceptions.

O'Malley said flatly in an interview at his campaign headquarters: "I am not in favor of vouchers."

The No Child Left Behind law has been embraced by some states and fought by others.

Under Ehrlich, and the state schools superintendent, Nancy S. Grasmick, Maryland has been among the leaders in attempting to comply quickly and efficiently with the law's many mandates.

Grasmick, who began wide-scale state testing to make schools more accountable in the early 1990s, was the first superintendent in the nation to attempt to take over a school using the No Child Left Behind law as a legal basis. Last March, with the full support of Ehrlich and after a vote by the state board, Grasmick proposed a state takeover of four Baltimore high schools and requiring seven middle schools with long records of failure to be given to a third party to operate.

Other states, such as California, have Said they will not takeover individual schools no matter how bad their academic records. In the end, the General Assembly blocked Grasmick and put a year's moratorium on the takeover order.

Maryland is one of the first four states to get the U.S. Department of Education's full approval of its state testing system, the Maryland School Assessment. And it is one of nine states that recently received the nod for its system of ensuring all the state's teachers will become "highly qualified," or trained in the field they are teaching, as required under the federal legislation.

Maryland also is one of a handful of states that keeps track of suspensions and expulsions in each school and labels schools "persistently dangerous," a somewhat controversial position.

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