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Studying Changes, Steele Tours Schools

Backers of Thornton Reforms Fear Work Could Be Undone

By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 24, 2004; Page B04

As Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele addressed groggy students at Albert Einstein High School in Kensington yesterday morning, the school day was two hours old. Halfway to lunch.

Steele asked: What if school didn't start until 9:30?

Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele (R) talks to a group of students at Albert Einstein High School in Kensington. (Robert A. Reeder -- The Washington Post)

"It means I'd have time to eat breakfast," said Cherrelle Coleman, a junior.

Steele (R) plans to visit schools in each county in the state to collect data and observations for the Governor's Commission on Quality Education in Maryland, a group he leads. The commission is scheduled to report to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) in September.

Recommendations could include a longer school year or later school day, more charter schools and added financial incentives for effective teachers, he said.

Some education leaders have said they worry that Ehrlich's panel will undo the work of the Thornton Commission, which was established by Ehrlich's predecessor, Parris N. Glendening (D). That panel, named for Alvin Thornton, a former Prince George's County school board member, spent two years studying school finance. In 2002, legislators approved a new aid formula that eventually will pump an extra $1.3 billion into the schools annually.

The legislation also distributed more money to schools with the most disadvantaged students and mandated full-day kindergarten statewide.

Ehrlich formed his own education commission in September and charged it with recommending how best to spend the so-called Thornton money. Steele said that everything, including the kindergarten mandate, is back on the table for discussion.

"I'm a supporter of full-day kindergarten, because I'm a product of full-day kindergarten," Steele said after speaking to the students. "There is a cost that we have to evaluate."

Maryland has just one operating charter school, in Frederick County, and is ready for more, Steele said. He said the commission is not looking seriously at more radical forms of school choice, such as vouchers.

Leaders of unions representing teachers and principals say they are both hopeful and wary as they watch the progress of Steele's group. They applaud the lieutenant governor for touring schools; he visited campuses in six other counties before arriving at the Montgomery County high school yesterday. But they say the unions have little or no voice on the panel -- a group of 30 educators, administrators, lawmakers and Ehrlich cabinet officers.

"Everybody's partisan radar is up, obviously," said Tom Israel, executive director of the Montgomery County Education Association, which represents teachers. "But I would take him at his word, and let's see what they do."

At Einstein, Steele met separately with the principal, the faculty and a group of students chosen by school administrators. Only the student session was open to the public.

"I've got to walk in your shoes," Steele told the students, gathered around a table in the library. "I've got to hear from you and find out what's happening."

Steele got an earful.

Jenifer Wilson, a senior, said the school computers were too slow and some of her textbooks were falling apart. She said the school was doing better on both counts this year than last.

John Maddrey, a sophomore, said the 1,800-student campus was "a little too crowded." A classmate complained about losing 10 minutes of instruction when he walked from a portable classroom into the main building to use the bathroom.

Someone mentioned that students had nowhere to park on campus. It turned out that the space is taken up by the portables.

"All right," Steele said, brow furrowed. "That is an issue."

When the visitor asked whether anyone fell asleep in class, nearly all the students raised their hands. He asked whether they would appreciate sleeping in and starting school at 9 or 9:30 rather than 7:20. Everyone gasped.

"I know that extra hour of sleep would be good for me," Coleman said. "I wouldn't be cranky in the morning."

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