The Candidates and Education

The Candidates and Education

The Sun and other publications have compared the views of Governor Ehrlich and Mayor O’Malley on education issues, but the comparisons for the most part miss the point. Fundamentally, there are three questions to be asked politicians about school improvement:

Do you favor opening up teaching and administration to persons not trained in schools of education?

Do you favor pay structures that bear at least some resemblance to those in private labor markets with which schools must compete?

Do you favor increased building-level management of schools?

Tested by these three standards, neither of the candidates are stellar, but Gov. Ehrlich has the edge by a small margin:

Opening up the teaching force. Gov. Ehrlich has urged loosening of the charter school law, which would allow charter schools to hire with less reference to state certification requirements. On the other hand, Supt. Grasmick, herself the proud holder of a doctorate in education, has done next to nothing to liberalize state certification rules, to make it easier for liberal arts graduates, scientists, housewives returning to the labor force, and military and government retirees. Indeed, when Del. Jean Cryor (R.Montgomery) introduced a bill in the 2005 legislature that would have reduced the number of required education courses, it was withdrawn at the request of the Superintendent, who indicated that her office was “working on” the program. The only progress on these lines has been in the form of a bill successfully sponsored by Del. Sandy Rosenberg (D.Baltimore) and others which would allow 100 (reduced from 150 during the course of enactment) science and math teachers per year to participate in a state alternative certification program allowing them to partially escape the requirement that nearly a year of their lives be spent in education courses. Given the fact that several thousand teachers enter the state’s teaching force each year, this can be scarcely deemed meaningful progress. The Governor does deserve credit for appointment of the Steele Commission, which recommended liberalization of certification requirements, but thus far has made no effort to secure enactment of its recommendations, possibly on the theory that it will require re-election and a new legislature to create the necessary political climate.

Mayor O’Malley’s record on this question is better in practice than in theory. Most of what alternative certification exists in the state is found in the Baltimore City schools, largely as a result of programs supported by the Abell Foundation. On the other hand, the centerpiece of O’Malley’s education program is the payment of much higher salaries, exceeding $100,000 annually, to a limited group of school principals. Since state regulations codified in the Code of Maryland Regulations (sec. 13A.12.04.04) require nearly two years of education courses to become a principal (18 graduate credits in education courses in addition to the 21 to 30 education course credits -14- needed to become a teacher), the effect of this proposal will be to provide new teachers with an added incentive to take education rather than subject-matter courses, reinforcing the character of the public education establishment as a closed shop the gate to which is controlled by the education schools of the state colleges. For good measure, the Mayor has been highly protective of the existing Baltimore City teachers’ union contract, which continues to contain an incredible provision denying teachers from the counties and elsewhere seniority credit for their prior service if they are so unwise as to consider teaching in Baltimore City ( Baltimore City Contract, 2005-07, Art. I, sec.1.5).

Reform of pay structures. Here, except for his proposal relating to pay of principals, O’Malley’s program is nonexistent. The only incentive the current Baltimore City school contract provided to teachers in scarce disciplines such as science and mathematics is an added signing bonus of $1,500 spread over three years, scarcely an incentive calculated to influence career decisions (Baltimore City Contract, 2005-07, Art.XIV, sec. 14.1 C). The master teacher provisions in the city contract provide only limited rewards in the $3,000 area for selected teachers. Gov. Ehrlich’s Steele Commission proposals include proposals for merit pay and extra pay for teachers in scarce disciplines. The merit pay proposals, however, are being distorted by the State Superintendent to make such pay dependent on the results obtained by each teacher’s students on state-prescribed tests, rather than on the local judgment of principals and peers. This exercise in ‘control freakery’ threatens to undermine the whole concept of ‘merit pay’. Student performance is dependent not only on teacher skill and effort but on parental interest and the disciplinary climate maintained by principals, as the teachers’ unions will be quick to point out. Students, moreover, have no incentive to take seriously state tests which have no personal consequences for them as relates to either graduation or college admissions.

Building-level governance. Here Mayor O’Malley deserves credit for his proposals, however flawed their details, to strengthen the competence of principals. However the terms of union contracts leave even the most skilled principals with too little authority. Senior teachers are equipped with bumping rights allowing them to readily move to schools of their choice, i.e. those with the fewest ‘problem students’. This creates great mobility in each school’s teaching force, preventing principals from building a team. In addition, a five-step grievance procedure, unique to the City, renders bad teachers impervious to discipline. (Baltimore City Contract, 2005-07, Art. IV) The Mayor also deserves credit for seeking community aid for building repairs and maintenance of particular schools. These efforts, which are serious, have not been institutionalized, even though state law allows local school boards to appoint advisory committees for each school (Education Article, sec. 4-112). Even Baltimore’s magnet high schools lack such committees, leaving them at the mercy of the whims of the City bureaucracy, which recently tried to dilute their admission standards. The Governor’s record in this sphere rests almost entirely on his support for charter schools. However these at present enroll only a fraction of 1% of the state’s students. The Steele Commission’s recommendations in this sphere are disappointing. A serious reform, like England’s 1988 Education Act, would effectively charter every public school, by giving each school its own community board of civic leaders, parents, and teachers, with increasing control over budgets and personnel.

Schools, in the end, are as good as the teachers in them. The quality of the teaching force will not improve until the barriers to entry imposed by the education schools are removed, competitive pay and opportunities for advancement are provided, and reasonable autonomy in school and classroom management is restored.

The huge infusion of Thornton funds has been squandered on marginal reductions in class size, i.e. in the hiring of more and worse teachers; on lockstep pay increases awarded purely on a seniority basis; and on the maintenance of overly liberal and wasteful health insurance programs, far more profligate than those in the private sector. Further funds have been squandered on retroactive pension increases and on bricks and mortar subsidies to bad zoning. The purpose to equalize school quality has been subverted by union contract provisions distributing the most experienced teachers to the least needy schools. The farce goes on, and neither candidate’s declared agenda will do much about it, though Gov. Ehrlich’s agenda offers more hope.

Nothing has been said here about vouchers. The assumption of both candidates is that they have no constituency. Previous voucher initiatives, fostered by a Commission chaired by former President Otto Kraushaar of Goucher nearly carried in statewide referenda but foundered on opposition in Montgomery County, a key county in gubernatorial elections. There is almost certainly a popular constituency for vouchers if the program were limited to Baltimore City, more than 40% of whose parents applied for private vouchers when they were first made available. The necessary political impetus to such a program will be absent so long as the Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore remains under leadership which attaches a higher priority to the refurbishment and expansion of its Basilica than the preservation and expansion of its parochial schools.

Calvert Institute for Policy Research, Inc., 8 West Hamilton Street, Baltimore, Maryland 21201

Posted in: Education, News Series