Maryland seems to have arrived late to the race for the largest pot of federal money ever dedicated to education reform - a race that has state governments lining up like shoppers the day after Thanksgiving.
As they jockey for position to get a piece of the $4 billion prize, states like Illinois, Tennessee, Louisiana, Massachusetts and California have begun changing laws or revising policies to remove what federal leaders view as impediments to serious school reform.
By comparison, Maryland has done little, at least in public.
The state school board has had no extensive public conversations in the past six months about how to improve its chances to get the $150 million to $250 million that it would receive in the Race to the Top funds. State leaders have not been encouraging public discussion on the issues among teachers unions, school superintendents and local school boards, although all parties will have to sign Maryland's application. And the governor's office doesn't appear ready to introduce charter school law changes, as some argue is needed.
"In a sense, we have been a bit quiet about it, but that has been sort of deliberate," said state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick in an interview this week. She contends that there is plenty of work going on behind the scenes between her staff and the governor's, and that Maryland doesn't need to make many policy changes to be competitive.
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who visited several Baltimore schools Friday, is using this stimulus money as a carrot to get states to voluntarily agree to a school agenda that goes far beyond former attempts to raise achievement under No Child Left Behind.
In the guidelines released this week, Duncan made it clear that states will be competitive only if they provide a friendly environment for charter and innovative schools, are serious about changing how teachers and principals are trained and evaluated, and are willing to adopt a set of common national standards by August.
There isn't anything wrong with Maryland keeping its cards close to the vest, said Andy Smarick, a former U.S. deputy secretary of education and Fordham Institute distinguished visiting fellow who helped found a KIPP charter school in Annapolis. But "it is highly unusual compared to what other states have done. Other states have passed legislation and undertaken massive public initiatives, and Maryland hasn't done that, at least not yet," he said.
Race to the Top funding is appealing not just because it is a significant amount coming in the midst of a recession. It would also provide state leaders with an opportunity to fund new school initiatives that have been difficult to approach in the past. "We are very anxious to go after these dollars," Gov. Martin O'Malley said.
The state has little time to complete a proposal. The first round of applications is due in mid-January for funds to be distributed this spring. A second round will take place in midsummer. Grasmick is applying for a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which has handed out money to 15 states, to have a professional consultant help write the application.
She said Maryland's proposal will include ideas for turning around the lowest-performing schools in Baltimore and Prince George's County, and improving teacher effectiveness and school leadership. The state also will include more emphasis on science, technology and math.
Duncan has broad latitude on where the money will go, leading some education experts to predict that the pot may go to only a few states or as many as a dozen.
"If they get two or three applications in that are fabulous, they will fund those," said Kate Walsh, a Maryland school board member who has advised states on how to apply for the funds in her role as president of the National Council on Teacher Quality.
"These guys have a good deal of resolve about this. They want this money to really create a revolution in education reform."
Perhaps most concerning to some in the Maryland education community is that the state has not moved yet to address some of its weakest areas.
"Everyone acknowledges that Maryland has a very weak charter school law and an outdated data system," Smarick said.
Grasmick agrees that Maryland is behind in assembling a system that can track students from kindergarten through college and link their individual test scores to each of their teachers. School systems could use that data to see how much a student has learned over the course of a year and could link that to a measure of teacher performance.
A nonprofit group that analyzed data systems in 2008 said Maryland was behind 48 other states in developing its system. In the past year, the state has improved, and Grasmick said new federal grants will help move the state much further along by next year.
Maryland's charter school law is also seen as a weakness. Although the state does not limit the number of charter schools, it is one of the few states that requires teachers at such schools to work under the union contracts in their districts. The state also does not provide charters access to any public funds for school buildings, which has made finding and renovating facilities a problem for charters. It has sometimes forced them to use some of the per-pupil funding they receive from the school districts to pay for buildings.
"I hope that this Race to the Top money can be used as leverage to bring about positive change to the charter school law in the state," said Dave Miller, director of the Maryland Charter School Network.
KIPP Ujima Village Academy, a charter that is one of the highest-performing schools in Baltimore, was forced to cut its staff and school hours after the Baltimore Teachers Union demanded that it conform to the union contract and pay its teachers 30 percent more than other city teachers who work shorter hours.
The school was one of three visited Friday by Duncan, Newt Gingrich and the Rev. Al Sharpton, who are touring districts around the nation to promote school reform. KIPP's leaders said Friday that if the pay matter is not resolved, they will leave Baltimore next year because they will not be able to operate effectively.
"This does have to get resolved, or KIPP will cease to exist in Maryland," said Jason Botel, KIPP Baltimore's executive director. "We're hopeful."
That problem illustrates the difficulty the state might have in persuading the teachers unions to accept some of the Duncan reforms and agree to concessions that might make their members uncomfortable.
The idea of using student data as a tool in evaluating teachers and principals is a sensitive subject for the union, said Dan Kaufman, the spokesman for the state's largest teachers union, the Maryland State Education Association. "There are still deep concerns from the union standpoint," he said.
Kaufman said the union has had initial conversations with the governor and state superintendent, but that now he expects more serious discussions to begin.
John Ratliff, director of policy for O'Malley, said, "We are trying to view this as a partnership, and there is still a lot of discussion around these issues."
Ratliff acknowledged that Maryland still needs to do "some heavy lifting" before it can produce a competitive application.
Baltimore Sun reporter Arin Gencer contributed to this article.
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