Unions won't sign onto Md.'s Race to the Top application

State school board to vote Wednesday on effort to get as much as $250 million in education funds

May 25, 2010|By Liz Bowie, The Baltimore Sun

Despite opposition from teachers unions and Maryland's largest school system, the state school board is poised to vote Wednesday to approve an application for as much as $250 million in federal funds.

With the filing of the Race to the Top application in the next week, Maryland will be one of about 30 to 40 states that have crafted a progressive reform agenda in the past year in hopes of winning a competition that is reshaping public education around the nation. Particularly, the state is rewriting the rules for how teachers are trained, tenured and evaluated.

But this new agenda has angered teachers unions, which oppose a requirement that they be evaluated in part on their students' test scores. The Baltimore Teachers Union is the only union that has signed onto the application.

The presidents of the teachers unions in Baltimore, Howard, Frederick and St. Mary's counties testified Tuesday that they have been left out of the process and their voices of concern ignored.

"This is a top-down, strong-armed approach to obtain signatures on an application that will ruin our No. 1-rated school system," said Baltimore County teachers union President Cheryl Bost.

Gary Brennan, president of the Frederick County teachers union, said the Maryland State Department of Education attempted to give an "appearance of collaboration while decisions that directly affect teachers and their profession are made behind closed doors" and without consideration of their opinions.

After hearing the concerns of teachers, the state school board delayed its vote by a day and told the teachers it takes their participation in the process seriously. However, with the June 2 deadline for filing the application fast approaching and with the backing of nearly every superintendent and local school board, the state board members seemed ready to go ahead with the 330-page application.

In addition, Montgomery County schools Superintendent Jerry D. Weast told the board Tuesday that he would not sign the application. Frederick County also will not sign on.

The failure of Montgomery, the largest and wealthiest system in the state, to sign the application has been a source of concern because it is likely to weaken it, according to Andy Smarick, a fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute who has studied the Race to the Top process.

"If Maryland doesn't win, then there will be a lot of finger-pointing at districts and unions that didn't sign," he said. In his view, the state's application is strong, but is probably on the borderline of winning.

Whether Maryland is chosen among a dozen or so districts expected to win the $4.3 billion in federal funds is particularly important to Baltimore City and Prince George's County, the districts that would garner the largest share of the money.

But even if the state doesn't win, Maryland intends to carry out a host of school reforms that were only pipe dreams among a small number of reform-minded educators a year ago. Those dreams quickly became reality all over the nation when the Obama administration announced a competition and held out the carrot of a relatively modest amount of federal money to states that were willing to make changes.

Among the reforms, Maryland will throw out its current state curriculum and tests and adopt a new national curriculum and national test. The state board voted Tuesday to begin that process.

The state has also passed laws extending tenure qualification from two to three years, and the board is expected to soon take on the issue of how teachers are certified.

In addition, 30 percent of a teacher's evaluation will be based on students' results on the state test, and another 20 percent will be based on student achievement as defined by the local school system in collaboration with teachers. The remaining 50 percent would be a judgment about how well teachers carry out their responsibilities to prepare lessons, plan and teach.

State schools chief Nancy S. Grasmick said she will ask teachers to help develop details of the evaluation system, which would be piloted in select schools in 2011 and take effect in the 2012-2013 school year.

The legislature passed a law last session that required student performance to be a "significant" factor in evaluations. Later in April, Grasmick proposed to the state board that it pass a regulation defining significant as 50 percent. Some legislators then questioned whether the state board was going against the new law.

But Tuesday, Elizabeth Kameen, principal counsel to the Maryland State Department of Education, said it is the opinion of the attorney general's office that the proposed regulation requiring 50 percent is legal.

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