Candidates Agree: School Reforms Are Here to Stay


Six months ago, it looked as if the biggest educational issue in the Maryland gubernatorial campaign would be the Schaefer administration's controversial education-reform programs.

The Maryland State Teachers Association seemed hostile to School Performance Assessment, the new program under which the state uses rigorous statewide student tests to evaluate every public school and hold each one accountable for its teaching performance. Teachers and school administrators, school boards and local politicians all felt uneasy about school "reconstitution," the program under which the state board of education can intervene to force reforms on any school that the assessment program identifies as an habitual failure.

The gubernatorial candidates seeking the teachers' endorsement tried to sound sympathetic to their concerns. Parris N. Glendening made more soothing noises than anyone else.

As late as April, Mr. Glendening was expressing open skepticism about the Schaefer programs and suggesting he'd make changes. His views reflected more than his desire for the teachers' support. He seemed genuinely troubled by a program which held teachers and schools responsible for student performance even in regions, like his own Prince George's County, where many students came from severely disadvantaged backgrounds.

As a county executive, he also distrusted the school reconstitution program as an intrusion into local control over education. Finally, he felt that both programs should involve teachers more in their design and implementation.

Since Mr. Glendening already looked like a winner in the Democratic primary, the architects of the Schaefer educational programs made a considerable effort to persuade him of the reforms' merits. They succeeded.

Mr. Glendening is a college professor, a policy wonk and a strong believer in objective testing in his own county's schools. He listened and took the time to rethink his attitudes. He had the freedom to reconsider his positions because he had only promised the teachers that he'd increase their involvement in the programs.

By early summer, with the teachers' endorsement safely in hand, he had satisfied himself that the Schaefer reforms had charted the right course after all. He publicly committed himself to support them when he appeared before the Maryland Business Roundtable for Education.

After that, the Schaefer education plan disappeared as a potential issue in the democratic primary. It had never even surfaced in the Republican one. The heavy favorite, Helen Bentley, fully backed the programs. So did her little-known opponent.

Now the primaries are over, and both candidates for governor support the Schaefer reforms. Whoever wins, they will live on into the next administration. This is very good news for Maryland.

William Donald Schaefer will be remembered for the famous renaissance of his beloved Baltimore. But as governor his most profound accomplishment has been achieved in education -- the implementation of the Sondheim Commission recommendations, the establishment of demanding statewide educational standards and the creation of a basic framework under which educational performance and reforms can be tested and evaluated. Without these challenging standards and rigorous assessments, desperately needed progress in our schools cannot occur.

If the primaries ended up preserving the Schaefer legacy, however, the Republican one dropped a bomb on the state's educational establishment. Ellen R. Sauerbrey came from nowhere to win her party's nomination by promising to cut the state income tax by 24 percent. She's dead serious, and she's only seven points behind in the latest polls. The teachers are in shock.

Mrs. Sauerbrey, however, claims that her tax-reduction program will not threaten state aid to schools. She points to her proposed budget for fiscal-year 1996. It would cut state income taxes by the 6 percent she's promised for her first year in office, but it would nevertheless increase all local aid, including aid to education, by 5.5 percent. That's exactly the increase recommended by the Department of Fiscal Services.

After the first year, however, Mrs. Sauerbrey has committed herself to keep cutting income taxes by 6 percent a year every year for three more years. But so far, she's made no commitment about maintaining state aid to education.

Will her tax reductions eventually force her to cut school aid? That depends. She expects to achieve her tax goals not by making any reductions in state school funding but by merely slowing the annual rates of spending increases. She thinks she can meet her tax goals by holding state school spending increases to 3.3 percent a year.

That doesn't sound cataclysmic, even though a 3.3 percent increase would barely cover inflation. But what if she can't even do that? Her projections, like everyone else's, depend on her assumptions. She claims they're conservative. But what if they don't work out? What will she forsake? Education funding or her tax-reduction program?

Even if her projections hold up, would a Sauerbrey administration do anything to correct the egregious inequity of educational funding disparities in Maryland? Can we ever expect Baltimore to rebuild its public school system with substantially less money per pupil than the surrounding counties can spend? How can this state hope to compete in a knowledge-based global economy with anything less than the best educational system money can buy?

What about Mrs. Sauerbrey's proposal for a $2,000 per student tax credit for private-school tuitions? Will she fund that program with money subtracted from the state's school budget?

Mrs. Sauerbrey's tax-reduction plan is more thoughtfully constructed than the news media have realized or her Democratic opposition has acknowledged. She may be able to implement it if she's elected. But make no mistake. Her priority is tax reduction. Not education. She's committed herself to making our tax load lighter rather than our public schools better.

What's more important to us?

We're going to find out November 8. In the meantime, Mrs. Sauerbrey's campaign raises a huge new educational issue: Is this any time to be investing less in our schools?

Tim Baker is a lawyer who writes from Columbia.

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