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Race for education dollars

Monday, January 25, 2010; A16

MARYLAND SAT OUT the first round of competition for millions in federal dollars because it has some policies that jeopardize its chances. Changing these outmoded laws would help the state get money, and, more important, it would help education. State Superintendent of Schools Nancy S. Grasmick is right to push for reforms, but it's unclear whether state lawmakers will listen to her good advice or, instead, instructions from state teachers unions.

Applications for the next phase of Race to the Top are due June 1, and Ms. Grasmick is pushing for changes in teacher tenure and compensation. She wants to extend the two-year tenure process by at least a year, provide incentive pay to attract high-performing teachers to low-performing schools and link teacher evaluations to student performance. Because legislative approval is needed for the first two reforms, Ms. Grasmick briefed a state Senate committee but got a chilly reception.

Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) and the 188 members of the General Assembly are all up for election this year, and the influential teachers unions have started to flex their muscles. Mr. O'Malley, endorsed by the Maryland State Education Association even before an opponent has taken the field, made it clear in a recent meeting at The Post that he has little interest in changing the status quo.

If anything, Ms. Grasmick's reforms don't go far enough. Why, for instance, should teachers be given lifetime job guarantees? Tenure may have made sense when the profession was in its infancy and before there was due process to address arbitrary firings, but today it only helps protect teachers who shouldn't be in the classroom. Get rid of it.

There is urgent need for Maryland to strengthen its law on public charter schools. The sole authority for approving charters lies with local school districts, which feel threatened by the innovations and choice offered by these alternative public schools. That policy and rules preventing the state from providing capital funding for charter school facilities stunt the growth of charters in Maryland. Every one of the state's 42 charters had waiting lists last year; one school in Frederick County had 300 people in line for 12 spots.

Mr. O'Malley is proud that Maryland was recently rated by Education Week magazine as having the nation's top education system for the second year in a row. There's no question that many Maryland jurisdictions have fine schools, but high student achievement results in large part from its being a wealthy state. Inequities continue to mean that large populations of students, mostly poor and minority, fail to meet minimum standards. If Mr. O'Malley wants to help those students still being ill-served, he should listen to his education secretary and urge the Democratic leaders of the General Assembly to do the same.

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