Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele released his blueprint for education reform yesterday, a series of 30 recommendations that call for schools to be graded and teachers to be paid for performance.
Members of the 30-person Governor's Commission on Quality Education in Maryland recommended efforts to promote charter schools but rejected school vouchers, a far more divisive topic.
Steele (R) said the report was the product of many visits to public schools and many conversations with students. "I rode their school buses, toured their schools, spoke one-on-one with them and even ate lunch with them in their cafeterias," he said yesterday.
The panel's work, much of it completed behind closed doors, drew swift criticism from Democrats. The report arrived on the eve of an election year, with Steele expected to mount a bid for an open U.S. Senate seat and Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) seeking reelection.
"It's just the oddest commission I've ever been on," said Del. Nancy J. King (D-Montgomery). King said that commissioners were instructed not to talk to the media and that the group was broken into subcommittees so they could meet privately. She said staffers denied her request to see the report before its release.
Ehrlich stressed that nothing in the 54-page report would undo the work of his predecessor, Democrat Parris N. Glendening, whose Thornton Commission completed a study of education priorities four years ago. Nor, he said, would Maryland schools lose any of the $1.3 billion in annual funding set aside by Thornton.
"The philosophical debate in Maryland concerning funding is over," said Ehrlich, whose administration has fully funded the Thornton plan. "This commission is not about if we're going to spend the dollars, but how are the dollars going to be spent."
Some recommendations will be enacted within two months, the others within a year, said Robert Kemmery, the commission's executive director. Which recommendations will ultimately become mandates remains to be seen.
The report proposes that public schools be graded on their performance, an idea that could yield grades of A through F for every campus. School grades -- mandated in Texas, Florida and elsewhere -- have proved more welcome at high-performing schools than among low performers.
Kemmery said school grades could complement the Bush administration's No Child Left Behind law.
In a similar vein, the report urges the state to abandon its system of paying teachers strictly according to their experience and academic degree in favor of a model that pays them according to "demonstrated effectiveness" as measured by test scores and other results, as well as expertise in their subject and their willingness to teach in an unpopular school.
Kemmery cited the Anne Arundel County system, which has offered teachers bonus pay for remaining at schools with low test scores and additional dollars if scores subsequently improve.
"It seems to me it might be appropriate to pay a high school physics teacher more than an elementary" school teacher, said Kemmery, a former principal, "and I know that raises a few hackles."
Pat Foerster, president of the state teachers union, said breaking up union pay scales amounts to "a distraction that throws us off course with what is probably the most important issue in the state," which is how to keep teachers in their jobs. The solution, she said, is higher salaries across the board.
Foerster said teachers would fight another of the commission's recommendations, which calls for a "portable" pension plan that teachers can take with them when they change jobs. The Steele commission contends that a more flexible pension would lure more teachers to Maryland; Foerster counters that it also would allow them to leave.
Maryland's education schools are producing 2,300 new teachers a year, not nearly enough to meet a yearly demand for 6,000 to 7,000, according to Nancy S. Grasmick, the state school superintendent.
Steele's commission suggested several ways to attack the shortage: resume the past practice of waiving university tuition for prospective teachers in critical subjects or understaffed schools and expand the process of teacher certification beyond education schools.
The commission recommended strengthening Maryland's charter-school law, which is among the weakest in the nation. Vouchers, a method of diverting tax dollars to parents dissatisfied with public schools, "were talked about in my subcommittee," said King, who opposed them. "But I got a phone call back from one of the lieutenant governor's staff people, who said the governor was opposed to vouchers and they wouldn't be a part of the report."
Some observers, including members of the commission, voiced disappointment that the final report made no mention of vouchers.
"If we're going to have a real discussion about all of the education options and all of the options for reform, then even if the commission rejected vouchers, they should have a rationale for why," said Kirk A. Johnson, an adjunct scholar with the Maryland Public Policy Institute, a nonpartisan research group.
Staff writer John Wagner contributed to this report.