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Upcoming editorial: Md. is at the bottom in the Race to the Top

Here's a preview of an editorial we're working on. Let us know what you think. The best comments will appear alongside it in the print edition.

The Obama administration has given U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan $5 billion for a "race to the top" fund designed to encourage states to adopt educational innovations that produce dramatic improvements in student achievement. But in the race to take advantage of this federal largesse, Maryland is limping along at a snail's pace compared to the rest of the pack.

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State Education Secretary Nancy S. Grasmick hasn't announced a plan to compete for the federal aid, even though the deadline for the first round of applications is less than two months away. Meanwhile Gov. Martin O'Malley, who has said education is one of his administration's top priorities, hasn't lifted a finger to remove the legislative roadblocks that put Maryland at a competitive disadvantage in qualifying for funds.

Among those obstacles are regulations discouraging merit pay for teachers and outmoded tenure rules that allow teachers to get lifetime appointments after only two years in the classroom; the state's abysmal data management systems, which don't allow educators to track students' progress from year to year; standardized tests based on minimal levels of competence that don't adequately prepare students for higher education or for jobs in a global knowledge-based economy; and evaluation procedures that make it all but impossible to fire ineffective teachers.

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While Maryland dawdles, other states considered leading contenders in the race — California, Massachusetts, Illinois, Tennessee and Louisiana, for example — have been scrambling to rewrite laws and revise policies likely to be viewed as possible impediments to serious school reform. They have called public meetings, convened task forces and enlisted public figures to rally support behind the need for sweeping changes; in Colorado, the state's lieutenant governor is personally leading the charge. And they've worked hard to get at least a modicum of cooperation and support from the powerful teachers' unions.

Secretary Grasmick says Maryland already meets all the requirements for receiving federal innovation funds. She seems to be pinning her hopes on getting a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation that would allow her to hire a high-powered consultant to write a winning application. But with millions of dollars at stake, surely she and the governor could mobilize funds from the state's own budget to underwrite the drafting of such an important initiative. Even without the lure of the federal billions, the reforms are worth making.

The larger problem is that neither Ms. Grasmick nor Gov. O'Malley seem to understand that none of the groundwork is in place for a successful proposal, no matter who ends up writing it. The teachers' unions haven't been brought on board, even though their support on issues such as tenure, teacher evaluations and merit pay is crucial to any innovation strategy that has a chance of being competitive. Meanwhile, the legislature hasn't taken any of the steps needed to revise rules on tenure, charter schools or tying teacher evaluations to student performance, despite the fact that the eventual winners in the race for federal funds are likely be states that score highest in just those areas.

Maryland has no shortage of educators committed to innovation and reform, including Baltimore City schools chief Andrés Alonso, who has made great progress replacing failing schools with new public and charter schools. But the state needs to pull its share of the weight if Maryland is to have a realistic shot at winning innovation funds. We're appalled by Ms. Grasmick and Gov. O'Malley's seemingly blase attitude toward the prospect of losing millions of dollars the state needs to improve its schools. No one wants to see Maryland end up a day late and a dollar short in the race to the top just because officials couldn't get their act together to write a proposal the feds will take seriously.

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