Education reforms could hit roadblock
Federal money at stake as lawmakers balk over broad changes
Potential education reform and up to $250 million to boot is bumping up against election-year politics in Maryland.
And whether the state should have pursued the money sooner already has caused some friction between Gov. Martin O'Malley and state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick.
O'Malley (D) publicly criticized Grasmick and the state Department of Education in December for not applying for a share of $4 billion in "Race to the Top" funding, which the U.S. Department of Education will award states that agree to certain reforms.
Those changes include tying teacher and principal pay to test scores, developing a long-term student tracking system and providing incentive pay for high-quality teachers to move to struggling schools.
Legislative approval likely is needed for wide-scale changes, and that's where the plan very well could stall. A number of legislators don't want any part of a major education overhaul, much of which is controversial, particularly with elections looming.
The national newspaper Education Week already had tagged Maryland as having the country's best education system, O'Malley argued, so he questioned why Grasmick wouldn't apply for the additional funds for schools to help sustain the momentum.
Jan. 19 was the deadline for the state to seek the first round of federal money, and Grasmick had said repeatedly that the state's education department would not apply.
The state has until June to request a second round of Race to the Top funding. The U.S. Department of Education will announce the award winners for that round in September.
"We didn't want to just chase money," Grasmick told the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee in Annapolis on Jan. 21. "We wanted to make it part of a comprehensive reform effort."
If approved for the federal grant, Maryland could get as much as $250 million to be split among the state's 24 school systems.
The state education department spurned the first round of Race to the Top funding after it was denied a technical assistance planning grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which said that Maryland's time frame to reach tenure was too short.
The nonprofit foundation said that teachers in Maryland should get three years of support, not two, before they gain tenure, said William Reinhard, a spokesman for the education department.
During a state school board meeting in December, Grasmick proposed a series of changes to put the state in a better position to compete for the Race to the Top funding.
Those recommendations included increasing the length of time it takes for teachers to reach tenure from two years to three, linking teacher and principal evaluations to test scores and giving extra money for educators to teach subjects that have shortages.
Grasmick is looking toward the General Assembly to mandate the reforms. "We're working to see who would introduce legislation to have the changes," she said.
That could be a tough sell this session, which is also an election year, said Sen. Nancy J. King (D-Dist. 39) of Montgomery Village.
"So much of that is really controversial," she said. "Most legislators would be pretty squeamish about sponsoring legislation like that."
One of the reforms would require an incentive pay proposal to entice highly qualified teachers to relocate to struggling schools.
King, a former Montgomery County school board member, said it would be tough sell.
"To take a teacher and put that teacher in a school with all kinds of problems, not many people want to do that," King said.
Shaun Adamec, a spokesman for O'Malley, said the governor is "exploring" the possibility of entering a bill to enact the changes.
Sen. Paul G. Pinsky, who proposed the Jan. 21 hearing in Annapolis, said this week that he is unconvinced the state needs to change laws to compete for the federal funding.
"Anything we can do to improve our schools and our teachers teaching in them, I'm all for it," said Pinsky (D-Dist. 22) of University Park. "But I don't want to make wholesale changes until we see the data to show us this is the right way to go. There are a lot of unanswered questions, and I don't want to be led down the wrong path."
Del. John A. Olszewski Jr., who sits on the Education Subcommittee of the House Ways and Means Committee, said he expects a bill to be introduced this session to change the state's teacher tenure law.
"I would really be surprised if there wasn't a piece of legislation put in to have a conversation about it," said Olszewski (D-Dist. 6) of Dundalk.
While it could require "sweeping changes" in state law for Maryland to compete for the federal Race to the Top funding, some lawmakers still might be willing to propose the changes because of the $250 million at stake, Olszewski said.
"You got the carrot that the federal government is offering at a time when the state is facing a budget deficit," he said. "I think the economic piece of it is a big part of people looking at Race to the Top."