George Liebmann: Ask Gubernatorial Candidates About Schools and Education

BALTIMORE – Voters must ask the two main candidates for governor these three questions about schools before they vote for either one:

Do you favor:

Opening up teaching to people not trained in education schools?

Pay structures resembling private labor markets, where schools compete?

Building-level management of schools?

Why are these reforms needed? Schools are as good as the teachers in them. Teacher quality will not improve until barriers to entry are removed, competitively determined pay is provided, and management autonomy is restored. Here is an overview of where Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley, a Democrat, and Gov. Robert Ehrlich, a Republican, stand.

Opening up the teaching force

Ehrlich: Ehrlich has supported charter schools, which in most states don’t require many education course credits of their teachers. But State School Superintendent Nancy Grasmick has not made it easier for liberal arts graduates, scientists and retirees to teach. A state legislator withdrew a bill reducing required education courses at her request. A new law allows 100 science teachers annually to participate in an alternative certification program. Since the state hires several thousand teachers, this represents pitiful progress.

O’Malley: Many teachers with alternative certification work in the city schools, thanks to the Abell Foundation. O’Malley seeks large salaries for a limited group of school principals. Since principals must complete two years of education courses, this creates an added incentive to take education rather than subject-matter courses. The mayor preserved the Baltimore City union contract, which contains a provision denying teachers from the counties seniority credit for prior service.

Reforming pay structures

O’Malley: The only incentive the Baltimore City contract provides to teachers in scarce disciplines, like math and science, is a signing bonus of $1,500 spread over three years. The master teacher provisions provide rewards in the $3,000 area.

Ehrlich: The governor’s Steele Commission proposed merit pay and extra pay for scarce disciplines. Grasmick’s version of merit pay makes such pay dependent on test results, rather than on local judgment of principals and peers. This “control freakery” undermines the concept. Student performance depends not only on teacher skill but on parental interest and discipline maintained by principals. Besides, students would have no incentive to take seriously tests without personal consequences.

Building-level governance

O’Malley: In Baltimore City, union contracts leave even skilled principals with little authority. Senior teachers can readily move to schools of their choice; this prevents principals from building a team. A five-step grievance procedure makes it almost impossible to discipline bad teachers. The mayor deserves credit for seeking community aid for building repairs. But these efforts have not been institutionalized, even though state law allows boards to appoint advisory committees for each school. Even Baltimore’s magnet high schools lack such committees, leaving them at the mercy of the bureaucracy, which recently tried to dilute admission standards.

Ehrlich: The governor’s record rests entirely on support for charter schools, which enroll less than 1 percent of students.

So who is better?

Neither candidate’s agenda will do much, though Ehrlich’s offers more hope, particularly in its proposals for liberalized certification, some form of merit pay and extra pay for teachers in scarce disciplines. And he is more independent of the vested interests in unions and education schools.

George Liebmann is the volunteer executive director of the Calvert Institute for Policy Research Inc.

Posted in: Comment, Education