Maryland's third consecutive No. 1 ranking in K-12 education from Education Week comes at an awkward time — our schools are being recognized as the best in the nation just as lawmakers are coming to Annapolis to decide whether to cut their budgets. This confluence was not lost on the state's largest teachers union, the Maryland State Education Association, which issued a statement Tuesday morning noting that the "historic funding promise and investment" the state made through the Thornton program eight years ago have paid off and warning that "it's absolutely crucial that we keep this promise to our children and continue to invest in their future."

We can expect to hear that a lot in the next few weeks as the governor presents his plan for closing a $1.6 billion gap between projected revenues and expenditures. For the first time, his administration has hinted that education funding will not be held harmless in the budget process and that schools might see a cut of as much as 5 percent across the board. Education advocates and the teachers unions will surely argue that we will jeopardize our best-in-the-nation status if we allow any cuts whatsoever to the education budget, and after an election in which the Education Week ranking loomed large — both President Obama and former President Clinton mentioned it prominently when stumping for Gov. Martin O'Malley — lawmakers will likely be receptive to that reasoning.

Putting aside the question of whether we should determine our education policy based on the particular set of criteria assembled by a media outlet, it is worth noting that Education Week's rankings are based on a broad set of factors. Education Week does look at per pupil spending, and adjusted for the regional differences in the cost of education, Maryland ranks 16th in the nation. Some states that outspend Maryland by that measure do quite poorly in Education Week's overall rankings; Nebraska, which spends more than Maryland per student, when adjusted for the cost of living, ranks dead last overall among the 50 states and the District of Columbia. It's not just how much money we spend on education that matters but how we spend it and what policies we have in place to maximize students' success.

Maryland ranks particularly high in the alignment of its curriculum and in managing the transitions of students from one level of education to another. The state has enacted 13 of the 14 policies Education Week considers as the standard of excellence in this category, including the alignment of early learning standards with elementary curriculum; the presence of intervention programs for students who aren't ready to start school; the coordination of high school graduation requirements and curriculum with the state's colleges and universities; and the availability of programs that qualify students to enter skilled positions in the work force directly from high school. That's a testament to the wisdom of Maryland having a strong centralized education system whose governance is removed from the political realm and the value of continuity in policy under the leadership of Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick. Maryland has developed these standards and programs over decades, not just in the years since Thornton.

But other factors in Maryland's success in the Education Week rankings have as much to do with the state's wealth and highly educated work force as they do with what goes on in the classroom. Maryland scores well on Education Week's "chance for success" index in large part because of the state's high median household income, the percentage of adults with post-graduate degrees and our relatively low unemployment rate. Likewise, Maryland's strong showing on achievement derives in large part from the extremely high performance of many students in the system, despite significant and lingering gaps in achievement between wealthy and poor students.

For example, Maryland is by far the best in the number of high Advanced Placement test scores per 100 students (42.1), beating out the nearest competitor (New York) by nearly 12. Yet Maryland has the second worst achievement gap in 8th grade (behind Connecticut). The gap is closing for 4th grade students, though Maryland is still worse than the national average, but it is actually expanding for 8th graders.

To her credit, Ms. Grasmick did not paper over these shortcomings in a meeting Monday with The Sun's editorial board but pointed to them as reasons why the state has continued to pursue aggressive school reforms in spite of its top ranking. Among the most important is the creation of a longitudinal data system, authorized by the legislature last year, which will enable Maryland to track students from preschool through college and, eventually, the work force, so the state can determine what methods and curricula (and teachers) are the most effective with the aim of spreading the most successful techniques state-wide. Hand-in-hand with that is the development of teacher evaluation standards that are based in large part on growth in student achievement.

As for funding, Education Week recognizes that the total dollars spent is just one factor in an effective system for financing education, and that the equity of spending among jurisdictions is just as important. That, as much as the raw dollars involved, has been the legacy of Thornton. The commission's plan not only set a minimum standard for the state contribution to education but also established the principle that additional state aid should be distributed based on the number of special education students, English language learners and children in poverty.

Ms. Grasmick said Monday that she will fight for every penny she can get for education during the General Assembly session that begins Wednesday, but recognizing the inevitability of cuts given the state's dire budget situation, she will advocate foremost that any reductions keep the Thornton formulas intact. That's the right approach. The effects of the recession are too deep for us to hold any category of state spending — even a top priority like education — harmless from cuts, but we must focus on maintaining the policies that have made our education system successful and on implementing those that will spread that success  to all students.

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