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Falling behind in the Race to the Top

Gov. Martin O'Malley and State Secretary of Education Nancy Grasmick were probably the only ones surprised when the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation turned down the state's request for a $200,000 grant to help underwrite the drafting of its application for millions of dollars in federal Race to the Top funds. The money is to be awarded to states that have shown a serious committment to school reform, but Maryland is still in business-as-usual mode. If the state can't even convince the Gates Foundation that it has a shot at qualifying for reform dollars, how in the world does it expect the feds to take it seriously?

This should be a wake-up call for state officials who've been touting Maryland as No. 1 in the country on education while doing very little to rally the support of lawmakers, educators and the unions behind the kind of reform agenda that is pulling other states ahead. There are at least three things the state could do off the bat to show its committment to change: 1) It could revise tenure rules so that teachers only became eligible for lifetime appointments after they serve three years instead of two; 2) it could lift the ban on state funding for capital projects at charter schools, so they could upgrade their facilities and expand the number of children they serve; and 3) the legislature could create an independent charter authority so that local school districts can no longer veto new charter school applications simply because they don't want the competition.

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Ms. Grasmick insists she and the governor are already working quietly behind the scenes to push changes through. But apparently they've been so quiet about it that no one has heard them at all. When President Barack Obama spoke recently about states that are leading contenders for Race to the Top funds, Maryland wasn't on his list. And why Maryland, the wealthiest state in the nation, needs private sector help to hire someone to write its federal grant proposal is a mystery: If reform were really a priority, the department would find a way to come up with the money on its own rather that wait around for Santa Claus to bail it out.

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