State education officials oppose Assembly’s bid to curb their power over failing schools

Liz Bowie
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun
State education leaders oppose legislation that would diminish their role in setting school policies.

State education leaders are infuriated by the General Assembly's passage of legislation that would diminish their role in deciding how schools are held accountable over the next 15 years.

Members of the Maryland State Board of Education see the measure, which would forbid the state from using charter schools and vouchers to fix failing schools, as a power grab by the legislature.

Gov. Larry Hogan has said he will veto the bill. State education officials are hoping to prevent a veto override.

The legislation also would set a cap on a how much weight standardized test scores and other performance measures would be given in school rankings. Such education policy decisions have traditionally been left to the state school board.

"We believe it infringes on the ability of the state board to make key education policy decisions independently and outside of politics," said Andrew Smarick, the board president. The board has written two sharply worded letters of opposition to the legislature.

The legislation's supporters, including Del. Eric Luedtke, a Montgomery County Democrat, have said the measure is needed to prevent the state board from unilaterally taking severe steps.

The bill passed with large majorities, and a successful override vote in the final days of the legislative session appears likely if the governor vetoes the measure.

The showdown between Hogan and legislators over the "Protect Our Schools" bill is part of a larger national debate that has erupted over privatization of education. President Donald Trump and his education secretary, Betsy DeVos, have said they will push states to provide low-income students more school choice by giving them state-funded vouchers to attend private schools. DeVos also has been a strong proponent of expanding charter schools.

The state teachers union supports the Annapolis bill, saying it's necessary to protect public schools.

"While it's clear that Governor Hogan's state school board is frustrated with the legislature's actions, it pales in comparison to the frustration that stakeholders — led by public educators and parents — had with the board's intentions to carry out Betsy DeVos' vision for school privatization," said Betty Weller, the union president.

"The General Assembly had an obligation to step in on behalf of their constituents," she said.

The bill has lukewarm support from the association of Maryland school superintendents and more vigorous support from a number of other education groups in the state.

Many members of the state school board were appointed by Hogan; and some, including Smarick, are more supportive of a conservative school agenda. But even some of the more liberal-leaning members of the board, including holdovers of former Gov. Martin O'Malley, have opposed the legislation.

"These bills, if enacted, could damage the educational prospects of Maryland's children, especially the neediest among them, and dim the State's longstanding national reputation as a forward-looking education leader, especially in the area of accountability," the state board wrote in a letter to the legislature March 24.

At the center of the debate is what role the legislature and state school board should play in crafting the plan for holding students and schools accountable under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act. The state board has spent the past year holding public meetings around Maryland to get input for the plan, which must be submitted to the U.S. Department of Education in September.

The state board contends the legislature is stepping into the middle of that public process and dictating what the plan will be. Some agree.

"I am concerned about the eroded authority of the state board based on this bill," said Nancy S. Grasmick, a former state schools superintendent.

Hogan said he believes the plan would be rejected by federal education officials and could jeopardize about $250 million annually in federal funding.

The other controversial portion of the legislation mandates that academic factors account for only 65 percent of the formula that determines whether a school is meeting standards. Those measurements are expected to include test scores, yearly academic gains by students, and high school graduation rates.

Of about 10 states that have currently submitted plans to the federal government, Maryland's would have the weakest academic standards. Most other states have designated 75 percent as a minimum for academic factors, said Daria Hall, head of communications for The Education Trust, a Washington-based nonprofit.

Students need to be kept to "rigorous standards, and that is what parents want and what students need to be successful," Hall said.

liz.bowie@baltsun.com

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