Stumbling toward the top

Our view: Can Maryland win federal school dollars with one arm tied behind its back?

April 13, 2010

Maryland sat out the first round of the national Race to the Top competition for up to $250 million in federal education funds earmarked for states that demonstrate a credible commitment to thoroughgoing school reform. State schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick as much as acknowledged Maryland hadn't done enough to qualify for the grants, and Gov. Martin O'Malley pledged to back legislation in Annapolis this year to beef up the state's credentials before a second round of applications is due in June. Though he's accomplished some of the things that needed to be done in the General Assembly session just ended, the state still faces a tough hurdle in getting all the stakeholders in the reform effort on the same page in a way likely to satisfy federal officials that Maryland is really serious about reform.

In Maryland's application for the federal Race to the Top dollars unveiled this week, the state focuses on the right issue: the fact that while successful overall, Maryland still grapples with persistent and damaging gaps in the achievement of poor and wealthy students, and between minority and white students. And it cites, among other changes, the General Assembly's approval of measures that will extend the time it takes for teachers to achieve tenure, and to link teacher evaluations to student performance.

Governor O'Malley could have — and should have — pushed for more. Our charter school law needs strengthening, and compromises made to get the tenure and evaluations legislation passed weaken those measures. But those deficiencies aren't going to change before Maryland turns in its application two months from now, so what he and other state leaders need to concentrate on is getting all of Maryland's school districts and teachers unions behind the reform effort as quickly as possible.

That's because the greatest resistance to the reforms needed to compete in the Race to the Top — and to make our education system stronger — is coming from the state's wealthiest suburban jurisdiction, Montgomery County, where the school system has been reluctant to sign on to the reforms, and the teachers union has strongly questioned them. The county already has one of the most successful school systems in the state and nation, and its teachers union may well feel it can afford to forgo making the kinds of changes that would make the state as a whole more competitive for the federal award — which would disproportionately benefit poorer counties with the greatest educational needs, such as Baltimore City and Prince George's County. But it seems grossly unfair for the state's wealthiest school district to be allowed to wield what amounts to a veto over other jurisdictions' chances of winning badly needed aid.

Montgomery County's teachers union isn't the only one that has resisted Ms. Grasmick's efforts at reform, but there is something truly perverse about that jurisdiction, for all its vaunted successes, failing to embrace ideas that would directly benefit many of its own students. Though the federal resources would be concentrated in the districts that need them most, it is not as if the achievement gaps the state is trying to erase don't exist in Montgomery County as well. There may be fewer poor students there to drag down the district's high average test scores, but the gaps are just as destructive for those left behind. Don't they deserve a quality education too?

The first round of Race to the Top awards sent a clear signal that the feds consider getting the support of all local districts and local unions as essential to any credible reform effort. The U.S. Department of Education wants to make sure the reforms promised in winning states' applications are actually carried out, and seeing that commitment up front was critical for Delaware and Tennessee, the only winning bids out of the 40 states that competed in the initial round of the contest. A place like Washington, D.C., where the schools are led by crusading reformer Michelle Rhee, ended up at the bottom of that round largely because of the lack of buy-in from the teachers union. By contrast, Delaware and Tennessee had nearly 100 percent support from local districts and unions.

That's what Maryland should be aiming for too. Montgomery County school officials say they've just seen the state's application and need time to consider whether to go along with it or not. Let's hope that that, with the full proposal in front of them, they realize there's more to lose than gain by not endorsing the state's reforms. Given the unambiguous message sent by the feds about the need for a unified, comprehensive effort in which everyone has a stake, if Governor O'Malley can't get sufficient buy-in from all corners of the state, it may not even be worth the bother for Maryland to apply — and that will hurt students everywhere, regardless of whether the districts in which they live are rich or poor.

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