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Maryland Is Hailed For Education Gains

But U.S. Official Calls for More Charter Schools

By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 17, 2005; Page AA03

The nation's new secretary of education might have been forgiven for ignorance of local school issues. But Margaret Spellings arrived at an Annapolis speaking engagement this week well-versed in Maryland's test scores, its Advanced Placement success and even how the Anne Arundel school board voted on a charter-school application.

Spellings, the education secretary since January, accepted an invitation to speak about No Child Left Behind, the education-reform mandate she helped craft as a senior adviser to President Bush in his first term.

Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings visited Annapolis Monday. (Evan Vucci -- AP)

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She addressed the Governor's Commission on Quality Education in Maryland, a group led by Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele and charged with writing a school-reform agenda for Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R). The group's findings are due in September.

In a Monday meeting at the office of the Maryland Higher Education Commission, Spellings praised the state's education system for broad gains on the Maryland School Assessment tests. The share of third-grade students rated proficient or better in reading rose from 58 percent in 2003 to 71 percent in 2004. Gains were fairly consistent across the grade levels in reading and math.

"The eyes of the nation are on Maryland," Spellings said. "When you get results like this, that is not an accident."

Spellings also hailed the state's performance on Advanced Placement, the series of tests that can yield college credits for high school students. Maryland ranks second only to New York in percentage of high school students earning scores of 3 or better on AP tests, generally the threshold for college credit, according to a January report from the College Board, and the state's rate of improvement in this area ranked second to Florida.

"You all are leaders in Advanced Placement," Spellings said.

She also noted one of Maryland's shortcomings, at least from the perspective of school-choice advocates: a shortage of charter schools. Maryland has only one fully operational charter school at present, and school boards have shown some reluctance to grant additional charters.

The Anne Arundel Board of Education's decision earlier this month to reject a charter application from the celebrated Knowledge Is Power Program, or KIPP, caught Spellings's attention.

In voting down the Annapolis school proposed by KIPP, the school board cited concerns for falling enrollment at existing schools, even as it approved a second charter school application from a comparatively unknown group in Glen Burnie. The Anne Arundel board was expected to reconsider the rejected application at a meeting last night.

KIPP's success, Spellings said, is "all about time on task. Kids go to school longer. They go to school on Saturdays. They go to school in summer. It's working across the country. It's a great model."

KIPP, with nearly 40 charter schools operating nationwide, has helped raise test scores among its students by extending the school day and the academic year and by putting families and teachers in closer contact, among other strategies.

"I hope there'll be more charter schools popping up in Maryland," Spellings said.

She was preaching to the converted. The Ehrlich administration -- and Steele's group in particular -- has pushed for a stronger charter-school law, one that would expand the range of groups empowered to grant charters. Presently, applicants must go to the local school board. Other jurisdictions, including the District, have seen a proliferation of charter schools after creating independent panels authorized to award charters.

Spellings replaced Rod Paige in January. She is the first education secretary who is a mother with school-age children. Her daughter Mary, 17, attends a parochial high school, while Grace, 12, goes to a public middle school.

The formerly low-profile Bush adviser has drawn considerable attention since ascending to secretary. She may be best-known to some as the Bush official who scolded PBS for using federal money to fund an episode of the children's television program "Postcards from Buster" that included two lesbian couples.

But Spellings was pushing policy Monday, lobbying Ehrlich and his commission for a Bush proposal to expand No Child Left Behind in high school. The law now calls for students to be tested once in high school; the proposed $1.5 billion initiative would expand high school testing.

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