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A post-election agenda for Maryland schools

When Marylanders cast their ballots on Election Day, they said "yes, you can" to same-sex couples who want to get married, to young people whose families immigrated here illegally and who hope to receive in-state tuition, and to casino operators who want to expand their operations here. Now, as we move forward from this election, it's time to say "yes, you can" to another group of Marylanders who are no less deserving of affirmation: public school students from underserved communities.

Maryland is the top-ranked state in the nation when it comes to public education, according to an analysis by Education Week; that is something to be proud of. But when you look at the stark achievement gap between students from high- and low-income families, we're near the bottom. That must be fixed.

We are excited about our new state superintendent of schools, Lillian Lowery, who has experience leading efforts to close achievement gaps. Our next challenge is to build on the momentum she brings, as no single leader or referendum alone can close these gaps.

As the executive director and the board president of KIPP Baltimore, which operates two high-performing public charter schools, we have three recommendations for how those of us who are committed to every child's civil right to a high-quality education can continue on this path:

Link certification with teacher effectiveness. In order to ensure teacher quality, our certification requirements must incorporate proven, research-based measures of teacher effectiveness. In our state, teachers become certified or "highly qualified" in part by taking courses that have no proven correlation with teacher effectiveness or student learning. There are many talented individuals with degrees in math and science who want to transition to classroom teaching but don't have the credentials to do so. Alternative certification programs like Teach for America (where about half of KIPP Baltimore's staff got their start) have helped overcome these obstacles for some teachers. We need to help more recent college graduates and midcareer professionals become teachers without having to take courses that aren't connected with effectiveness.

Reform Maryland's charter law. While charter schools are by no means a silver bullet, they provide unparalleled opportunities to learn about what's possible in public education. At KIPP, we have seen 80 percent of our middle school graduates matriculate to institutions of higher learning; many of them are the first in their family to enroll in college. The more that public charter schools are forced to operate like traditional public schools, the less they are able to discover innovations that could benefit all children.

In Maryland, public charters are subject to every policy and regulation that governs traditional public schools — and yet, the Maryland charter law does not provide public charters with funding for facilities. We must reform this legislation to ensure public charter schools receive the autonomy and capital funds they need to help close the achievement gap for even more children from underserved families.

Support the Transform Baltimore campaign to modernize city schools facilities. In Baltimore, public school facilities are in urgent need of repair. Water fountains are unusable because of lead; fire and security systems are outdated; lavatories are missing stall walls and doors. Baltimore City Schools CEO Andrés Alonso has been a tireless champion for the modernization of all Baltimore City school facilities, and he has had support from the Baltimore Education Coalition and many city schools parents, teachers, and students. If the state were to allocate the capital funds Baltimore City receives through a block grant to schools, our students would be able to learn in the modern, safe and inviting school buildings they deserve.

Looking at the big picture, our state has a good school system, but it has the potential to be a great one. If we can keep the positive change and forward momentum from this election season alive, we will truly transform the lives of Maryland's students — including those from underserved communities — and usher in a reality where every public school student knows that, "Yes, I can."

Jason Botel is the founder and executive director of KIPP Baltimore. His email is jbotel@kippbaltimore.org. Mitchell Whiteman is the president of the KIPP Baltimore board of directors. His email is mwhiteman@kippbaltimore.org.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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