Maryland state school board considering vouchers, charters for failing schools

The state school board is considering bold measures — offering vouchers, creating new charter programs and establishing a statewide school district — to improve consistently low-performing schools.

The ideas — none of which has been formally proposed — would be radical departures from current practices. They're being discussed in broad terms by board members as they work to rewrite the regulations that will govern how Maryland's students and schools are judged beginning next school year.


It is not clear whether any of the ideas will gain the support of the full board or the public. State school board President Andrew Smarick, who has spent much of his career on education policy, says he supports change.

"Maryland has been very traditional in its approach to failing schools," he said. "I am on the side of pushing our policymakers to be bolder on this issue because of the thousands of young lives at stake."


Smarick has written extensively about how the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, the law passed by Congress last year to replace the testing-focused No Child Left Behind Act, could be used to put low-performing schools under the control of independent boards that would impose the accountability requirements ordinarily applied to charter schools.

And board member Chester Finn has suggested the board consider creating a recovery school district, a state-run district that would be made up of the lowest-performing schools.

After Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, Louisiana created the Recovery School District, made up entirely of charter schools. Some believe it has improved student achievement in the city.

The Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, gives states far more flexibility to decide how to assess schools.


The Maryland Board of Education released a draft this month that details its plan to comply with ESSA, but many of the most crucial points have yet to be decided. The final plan must be submitted to the U.S. Department of Education for approval next fall.

The draft calls for the state to use test scores, graduation rates, nonacademic measures and other data to identify the lowest-performing schools.

A school that fails to make progress over four years would be required to write a plan for improvement with the help of the state — an approach already in use.

Some board members say that's not enough.

"Personally, I am not satisfied with a paper chase that gives people credit for writing plans," Finn said.

"If we care about the kids who are getting a crummy education in schools," he said, a more radical approach is needed.

Finn said he expects the state board to have more freedom to do what it wants with Donald Trump as president. Trump has nominated Betsy DeVos, a supporter of charter schools and vouchers, to be education secretary.

If board members decide to proceed with any of the options they are considering, they would need the approval of the state legislature and governor.

Gov. Larry Hogan has announced plans to double public funding, to $10 million, of a voucher program that gives students money to help pay for private school tuition. And in a recent letter to the school board detailing his priorities for ESSA, Hogan said he supported early intervention when schools are failing and wants to give parents options.

The General Assembly has resisted attempts by the state to take over failing schools. But after years of unsuccessful efforts to turn them around, some lawmakers say they are now open to changes.

Baltimore Mayor Catherine E. Pugh wants to take control of city schools back from the state.

Sen. Bill Ferguson says new focus is needed on solving long-term problems in the city.

"Everything should be on the table, and we should have a real urgency about this work," said Ferguson, a Baltimore Democrat. "But we can't do it in a way that stifles the voices of those who may be impacted."

One approach, Smarick said, would be to "elevate the power of the family and give them other options."

The state started the small voucher program this year. It gave students scholarships to dozens of private schools, most of them religious.

The one-year program did not gain wide support from educators.

A spokesman for the Maryland Association of Boards of Education said the organization would fight efforts to expand the voucher program.

The association does not oppose charter schools, spokesman John Woolums said.

"For the lowest-performing 5 percent [of schools] in need of comprehensive turnaround, the charter school option ... has always been available to local school systems and to communities," Woolums said.

The Maryland State Education Association, the union that represents most teachers in the state, opposes vouchers and some other options.

"This can't be a conversation whose goal is shutting down schools and privatizing them, an approach which won't help students," said Cheryl Bost, the association's vice president.

In some states, students in failing schools are allowed to attend nondistrict charter schools. In Tennessee and Louisiana, consistently low-performing schools have been taken out of from under the control of their districts.

Addressing low-performing schools is just one of the challenges confronting the board. Another is setting achievement goals for schools.

Only 40 percent of students now pass state tests. The board's draft plan calls for schools to increase the pass rate gradually to 70 percent by 2030.

School board members point out that schools have not been able to increase pass rates by more than an average of about 2 percentage points a year. So setting the bar higher, they argue, would be unrealistic.

The board is planning meetings around the state to gather comment from educators, parents and the general public.

Smarick said the board has not yet had an extensive conversation about whether to do something "dramatic and big and different."

"The board is still working through this," he said.

Smarick said he envisions discussions with the Kirwan Commission, the state task force charged with rewriting the school funding formula, before major changes are introduced.

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