Maryland and Distance Learning

Strangled in its Cradle

Morality, it is said, is what you do when no one is looking. To assess the morality of the O’Malley administration and its favored clients, the teachers’ unions, it is appropriate to look at an obscure enactment, passed and signed ‘under the radar screen’, Chapter 288 of the Acts of 2012.


A word of explanation is in order. There have been several periods of exceptional economic growth in this country. One of them was the 1920s, fuelled by two new inventions, electricity and the automobile. A second was the 1990s, fuelled by another two important inventions, computers and the internet. It is difficult to perceive what innovations will be drivers of growth in the next decade, but many think that the most obvious driver is the application of computer and internet technology to two sectors of the economy where they have thus far had little impact—health and education, together making up more than a third of the economy.


Online courses, and indeed ‘virtual schools’ have great potential. They were merely a gleam in the eye of a few educators when the Maryland State Teachers Association and its allies acted to forestall them, by including in the state’s weak charter school law a provision, section 9-102(12) of the Education Article, enacted by Chapter 358 of the Acts of 2003, flatly prohibiting ‘virtual schools’ by requiring “students to physically be present on school premises for a period of time similar to that which other public school students spend on school premises.”


It has now been discovered that a few teachers in conventional public schools wish to use ‘distance learning’ to enrich their courses, either by having students listen to especially inspired lectures by national authorities over the internet, or through use of the internet for drilling in language and mathematical skills. Are these teachers, as free professionals, to be left tot heir own devices in deciding when such use is appropriate? Of course not. Is the decision as to use to be made by the school faculty or principal? Of course not. Is it to be made by the county school system? Of course not, that would imply local control. The State Superintendent of Schools was intended by the 1867 Constitution to have only visitorial corrective power over local systems, but that constitutional principle has been obscured by a series of later usurpations. So we now have Section 7-1002 of the Education Article.


As initially enacted by Chapter 412 of the Acts of 2002 , this statute imposed on the State Department of Education a duty to “offer a distance-learning program to provide…students with equal opportunities [and to] offer expanded educational choices not otherwise available” The Department was to “Develop standards for teachers for the offering of courses or services on the Internet,” and was to “Review courses and courseware to assure quality and alignment with the Maryland content standards and other appropriate standards.” Note that the only permissible uses were to foster equality or to provide offerings that would not compete with those of the unionized teaching force. The statute as originally enacted empowered the State Board to establish reasonable fees for conducting the dilatory required reviews. The bill was originally sponsored by Delegates Maggie Mc Intosh and Sandy Rosenberg of Baltimore City. Its fiscal note assumed that only about 1000 public school students of more than a million would take part in distance learning. A Senate amendment which would have encumbered approvals by a requirement that all programs be equally available to blind and handicapped students was successfully rebuffed in the House of Delegates.


After enactment of this initial statute it was discovered, as described in the Fiscal Note to Chapter 288 of the Acts of 2012, that large delays and backlogs ensued since the State Department assigned insufficient personnel to conduct the required reviews. The fiscal note relates that in the ten years since enactment of the 2002 statute that 62 programs had been approved, none of them for elementary or middle school students, and that there was a backlog of 17courses. Each review was said to cost $850 and to require the services of three content specialists and one course review specialist.


Accordingly, the County Boards, or some of them, sought new legislation allowing the County Boards to exercise the review unction that should not have been taken from them to begin with. Their proposal was amended by requiring the State Department to act on review requests within 120 days if discretionary delegation to the County Board was not granted by the State Department. If the State Department, out of the goodness of its heart, allowed the County to exercise the review function, the County Board was nonetheless required to have the courses it approved reviewed by the State Department, which is given 45 days to “disapprove the online course based on criteria and guidelines developed by the Department.” For good measure, the County Board is required to remit to the State Department, for its dilatory services, 15% of the fees collected by it.


Noris this all. Chapter 288 as proposed by the County Boards was further amended in the course of passage by the House Ways and Means Committee, a reliable rubber stamp for the teachers’ unions, to require the State Department, in conducting its review of any course to “ensure that courses approved include specifications that allow for access by students with disabilities, including blindness” and to”establish a means for ensuring that online courses that fail to meet [this]requirement are prohibited from use.” In other words, a teacher of a twelfth-grade math course who wishes his students to use an interactive online drill and who has no blind persons in his class is precluded from doing so unless a computer Braille version of the online drill is available.


Needless to say, this not insignificant enactment failed to gain the attention of the Sun’s education correspondent, Liz Bowie. The only vote cast against it in either house was cast by Senator Edward Reilly (R-Anne Arundel).


Nor is beneficial change in the offing. A Study Commission on Virtual Learning was established by Chapter 291 of the Acts of 2012. As introduced, the bill provided for a Commission of 17 members: the Superintendent of Schools, the Director of the State virtual learning office, 4 legislators; a local Superintendent; a representative of the State Board of Education; a state PTA representative; two virtual learning providers and 6 MSDE appointees, to be drawn from local school systems. All these persons other than the legislators and the virtual learning providers are reliable members of the state’s public education establishment: no danger of new thinking here. In addition, to guard against strong leadership, the members rather than the Governor are to select the Chairman.


But this was not enough. In the course of enactment, the House Ways and Means Committee, always a faithful servant of the unions, amended the bill to replace specific mandates (including one which would have facilitated distance learning in home and private schools) with generalized pablum. Union representation being deemed insufficient, there were added to the Commission six additional members: a representative of the MSTA, a representative of the BTU, a parent, a teacher, a lonely representative of the business community, and a charter school advocate. Conspicuously absent are persons from the higher education, medical, scientific, broadcasting, language teaching, and private school communities, who might bring unwelcome new perspectives.


Posted in: Education, Efficiency in Government, State and Local Politics

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