Putting the needs of Maryland children first

Op-ed: When it comes to Md. education, the protection of jobs and union contracts takes precedence over kids.

Will Maryland ever place the educational needs of its neediest children above the interests of its middle-class adults? History — and recent events — suggest that the answer is no, barring a fundamental change in the stance of policy makers and those who influence them.

While public education in Maryland assuredly has bright spots and success stories, it's failing far too many of the state's children, with just 23 percent of 8th grade African-American students in Maryland "on track" toward college readiness in language arts according to the 2016 PARCC assessments and only 11 percent in math. That's because far too many young Marylanders are trapped in dreadful schools. Even in such highly regarded districts as Montgomery County, we find school after school where barely one pupil in five is on track for college.

What to do about these "dropout factories" and the elementary and middle schools that feed ill-prepared youngsters into them? Here Maryland has nothing to be proud of. With almost no exceptions, the state has opted to leave those dire schools in the hands of the districts that let them get that way. Unlike states that have forcefully intervened — wrangling dismal schools into "recovery" districts, for example, turning them into charter schools, outsourcing their management, or simply closing their doors — Maryland has eschewed all such threats to "local control." Nor has the state been willing to give more than a few kids exit passes so they can attend other schools. Yes, there's a tiny voucher program and a smattering of charter schools, but Maryland has the country's weakest charter law and basically leaves it up to those self-same districts to decide whether to have any charters at all — and empowers districts to keep them on very short leashes. It's next to impossible in Maryland for disgruntled parents even to move their children into other district schools.

Sadly, it's not just inertia or fealty to local control that keeps dreadful schools going unchallenged and blocks kids from fleeing them. It's adult interests that are jeopardized — teacher job security above all — when anything radical is done to change a school or shrink it as a consequence of children departing for better options. Even on the rare occasions when education leaders propose — as former state superintendent Nancy Grasmick once did — to extract a few terminally awful schools from district clutches, the legislature has slapped them down and prevented anything from happening. (That includes last week's death of Gov. Hogan's proposal to create an independent chartering authority free from district shackles.)

As Maryland develops its new school accountability plan under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, lawmakers — pressed by all the state's major "education establishment" groups, including administrators and school boards as well as both teachers unions — are moving once again to ensure that nothing drastic will be done to intervene in schools that fail, year in and year out, nor will those luckless youngsters be given exit visas. While flying the flags of "local control" and "professional judgment," what's really going on in Annapolis is the protection of adult jobs, union contracts and bureaucratic prerogatives.

It's a great pity and huge missed opportunity, for the new federal law gives Maryland a fresh chance to ponder alternatives to leaving failing schools and ill-educated pupils in the hands of those who let these educational disasters develop and persist. (ESSA requires states to identify their lowest performing Title I schools, as well as high schools with low graduation rates, but then leaves it to state officials to decide what to do with those schools.)

The state board, to my sorrow, lacks the statutory authority to remove either kids or schools from the clutches of failure. The General Assembly would need to act. Instead, by killing the bills that propose such changes while moving ahead with measures that forbid them, lawmakers will ensure that the status quo endures. They will declare that they're keeping public education public and preserving local control. But what they're really doing is preserving bad schools, existing power structures and middle-class jobs. The heck with the kids.

Chester E. Finn Jr. (cefinnjr@edexcellence.net) is vice president of the Maryland State Board of Education and distinguished senior fellow and president emeritus at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. The views expressed here are his alone.

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