Reforming too slowly

Our view: Awards to Del., Tenn., show how far Md. has to go in Race to the Top

March 31, 2010

The Obama administration sent up a bright yellow warning flag Monday to states vying for billions of dollars in federal education funds intended to encourage school reform efforts. Of the 40 states that entered the first round of the Race to the Top competition in January, only 16 were named as finalists last month, and of those only two states - Delaware and Tennessee - actually ended up winning part of the federal largesse this week. Delaware was awarded $102 million, while Tennessee got just more than $500 million.

In rejecting the bids of big states such as Florida, New York and Illinois, all of which had been considered strong contenders for the prize, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan sent a powerful signal that the feds won't be satisfied by half-measures grudgingly adopted by state lawmakers without strong support from local teachers unions. The message was that everybody needs to get behind meaningful reform.

The results of this first round of judging should be sobering to anyone who believed that all Maryland had to do was wave around its No. 1 ranking in Education Week to walk away with a big pile of federal money. More than a dozen states with stronger education reform credentials than Maryland were shut out, and this state surely would have been as well had it not belately recognized how unprepared it was to compete seriously.

Here's what it took to win: Delaware included a plan to identify the state's worst-performing schools and turn them around in two years, and it gives bonuses to teachers and principals who work in the toughest schools. Delaware also has 100 percent union support for its plan. Tennessee held two special legislative sessions to overhaul its education laws. It dropped a cap on the number of charter schools allowed in the state, and it secured a bipartisan consensus behind reform. The Democratic governor, Philip Bredesen, was supported in his efforts by former Republican Senator Bill Frist. All of the state's gubernatorial candidates signed pledges to support the reforms, and 93 percent of the state's local teachers unions backed the plan.

By contrast, Maryland's efforts have been tepid. The General Assembly is considering Gov. Martin O'Malley's legislation to make it somewhat harder for teachers to achieve tenure, better connect teacher evaluations with student performance and provide incentives for teachers to work in low-performing schools. But it is clear from yesterday's announcement that small steps in those directions aren't enough to get a piece of the billions the Obama administration is offering to cash-strapped states. For example, Maryland isn't considering any efforts to strengthen its charter school law, which has been used extensively in Baltimore but not much elsewhere, even in jurisdictions like Prince George's County where academics lag.

Moreover, the support of teachers unions is tenuous at best. Although the state teachers union has endorsed the O'Malley plan, locals have indicated their opposition to it, particularly tying teacher evaluations to student performance, and it is possible that the provision will be watered down to let local jurisdictions determine how the evaluations will be implemented. If the results of the first round of the Race to the Top are any indication, that could be a deal-killer. Just ask Florida, Louisiana and New York.

Maryland is preparing to enter the second round of the competition in June, but it's already evident that the state still has a lot more work to do in order to be truly competitive. The most glaring failure so far has been the inability of the governor and state school Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick to get every single one of the local districts and 100 percent of the teachers' unions behind the idea of tying teacher evaluations to student performance and changing tenure rules to make it easier for school administrators to fire ineffective teachers. For all the progress Washington schools chief Michelle Rhee has brought about in the nation's capital, the District of Columbia still came in dead last among the 16 finalists because of union opposition.

Yet with two more weeks before this year's General Assembly session ends, there's still time to fix these problems if the governor and Ms. Grasmick are willing to devote the necessary time and attention to the issue. Both of them have big bully pulpits, and they can't emphasize too strongly how important it is to get all the stakeholders in Maryland schools on the same page - and the fiscal crisis the state will face if it doesn't mount a winning bid for federal Race to the Top dollars. If Maryland is serious about maintaining its No. 1 rating, it's got to make sure everybody is on board on that point starting right now.

Readers respond
Has anyone on The Sun's editorial board considered that different states have differing lengths to go to reach the top? Perhaps that explains why the states' approaches are so varied.

Scottie

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