Local school boards agree to reforms

But without union support, Md. is not a strong candidate for Race to the Top funds

April 22, 2010|By Liz Bowie, The Baltimore Sun

Two-thirds of Maryland's 24 local school boards have agreed to sign on to education reforms they hope could earn the state as much as $250 million more in federal aid this year, but teachers unions appear to be far less supportive, which could weaken the state's position.

All of the largest school districts in the Baltimore area have voted to sign the Race to the Top application, including Baltimore City and Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Harford and Howard counties.

But local teachers unions, with the exception of the Baltimore Teachers Union, say they won't be signing or haven't taken a position. Baltimore County union President Cheryl Bost said she will not sign the application and knows of at least eight other presidents who have reached the same decision. Queen Anne's and St. Mary's union presidents said they will not sign the application in its current form.

The districts and unions have been asked to sign a document that states they will agree to implement a series of significant reforms, including changes to curriculum and teacher evaluations. The application is due to the federal government June 1.

If the unions don't agree to sign onto the reforms, there will be less of a chance that the U.S. Department of Education will pick Maryland as a recipient of one of the competitive grants, said Andy Smarick, a visiting fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute who has analyzed a number of Race to the Top applications.

The two states awarded money in the first round of the grant process — Delaware and Tennesse — gained nearly 100 percent support from their unions, and many of the elements of those plans were considered more ambitious.

"This is suggesting that Maryland's teachers unions are not as progressive," Smarick said.

Teachers are wary of the plan because it includes sweeping changes to how they are evaluated and the length of time it takes to get tenure, measures recently approved by the General Assembly. Many of those changes were proposed recently as the Obama administration began holding out the carrot of hundreds of millions of dollars for states that change their education policies. Teachers complain that the process has been too swift and that their views have not been solicited or considered.

Whether teachers agree now might not matter. Maryland education leaders have said they are committed to the changes even if the state doesn't win the grant award this summer. "Not signing on may not accomplish anything, but we can't sign on to something we don't agree to, hasn't been discussed with us and is being done to us," Bost said.

Bost said the teachers' main objection is the proposal to base 50 percent of a teacher's annual evaluation on student test scores, particularly because she believes there's no reliable assessment to measure how much a student has learned in a year.

"It is not that we don't want to be held accountable," she said.

Queen Anne's County union President William Hackett said the process does not emphasize collaboration between local school boards and the teachers unions. He said he believes that if unions were given a larger role in negotiating with their boards over the details of the proposals, they would sign the application.

"We are at the front lines of education, and we are left out of the discussion," Hackett said.

But Baltimore Teachers Union President Marietta English said she would sign. "Baltimore City stands to gain the most money if the program is funded and the union would not stand in the way of them receiving that money," English said in a statement.

Smarick said the lack of union support could enable state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick to strengthen the application, given that the union won't accept even moderate reforms.

Maryland is not the only state having difficulty getting teachers to go along with new reform measures. Indiana's state superintendent announced this week that he would not be applying for the second round of the Race to the Top grants because the unions failed to support the application.

In total, 17 of Maryland's 24 school boards have indicated they will sign on to the state's application.

Garrett is the only jurisdiction to oppose the application thus far. Carroll's board voted against signing but is now reconsidering.

The district that appears most up in the air is Montgomery County, the largest district in the state with an enrollment of 142,000. Montgomery County schools spokesman Dana Tofig said the county wants more time to consider the details of the 250-page application before deciding whether to agree to the reforms. Montgomery school Superintendent Jerry D. Weast said in an op-ed piece in The Baltimore Sun this week that the county already has a teacher evaluation policy that works.


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