Gov. Larry Hogan’s announcement that he will not sign Maryland’s proposed plan to implement the requirements of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act — the Obama era successor to No Child Left Behind — got him some swift criticism from the Maryland teachers union and its allies, including a claim from one of his prospective 2018 opponents that he is the “anti-public education governor.” The critics claim that he is putting some $250 million in federal funding for Maryland schools at risk and aligning himself with the extreme school privatization agenda of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.
That’s all a bit dramatic. The evidence so far would suggest that the federal Department of Education cares not one jot whether Mr. Hogan (or any governor) approves of the plan his or her state submits. A few of the states that have submitted plans so far have done so over their governors’ objections, but it appears not to have hindered their approvals. For example, the governors of Vermont and Louisiana (a Republican in a blue state and a Democrat in a red one, respectively) opposed their state plans, but the DOE approved them anyway. In general, early indications that the feds would take a hard line on state plans appear not to have panned out. Delaware, for example, got early harsh feedback on its proposal, but after some dialogue with the federal department and some tweaks, its plan was approved, too.
Mr. Hogan’s action should come as no surprise. The state’s plan, though approved by a Board of Education controlled by his appointees, was subject to the Protect our Schools Act, legislation passed this year by the Democratic General Assembly at the strong urging of the Maryland State Education Association, the state teachers union. It set parameters for how school quality would be measured, limited interventions for failing schools and, absurdly, prohibited the state from giving schools letter grades. (The state adopted stars instead, a distinction without a difference.) Mr. Hogan vetoed it, and the legislature overrode him.
One of the big areas of concern among accountability advocates (and one highlighted in the governor’s explanation of his veto) was whether the feds would reject Maryland’s plan for failing to give “much greater weight” to academic factors like test scores in its system for evaluating schools. The legislature required that such factors count for no more than 65 percent of a school’s score, and given the Department of Education’s reaction to some early plans, it looked like that might not be nearly enough. But it turns out the Trump administration is giving states significant leeway; North Dakota, for example, weighted such academic factors at just 51 percent but still got federal approval.
Governor Hogan complains in his letter announcing that he will not sign the ESSA plan that this year’s legislation “stymies any attempt to hold schools accountable and includes provisions aimed at preserving the status quo in failing schools.” He has long argued that more drastic interventions are necessary for struggling schools, such as forced conversion to charters, the creation of a state-wide recovery district and the expanded use of vouchers, saying that eschewing such tactics traps kids in failing schools. That set off alarm bells among Democrats and the teachers union — particularly a line in a letter Mr. Hogan sent early in the process suggesting that in some circumstances, collective bargaining agreements should be abrogated. The general freak-out in Annapolis was heightened by President Trump’s support for school vouchers and the long record of Ms. DeVos of advocating for extreme school choice models in Michigan.
But so far, it appears that the Department of Education is taking seriously the idea that ESSA is designed to afford states more flexibility to develop their own accountability measures to meet local needs. Maryland’s state board and education department went to extraordinary lengths to solicit input while developing the plan, holding hundreds of meetings throughout the state and talking to thousands of parents, students, advocates and others. By and large, the feedback from stakeholders was that they want to fix struggling community schools rather than blow them up, and the plan Maryland is sending to Washington does that. It calls for chronically low-performing schools to get more training for teachers, assistance with instructional methods, additional funding and accountability measures, needs assessments, leadership development and more.
We get that Mr. Hogan doesn’t want to sign a plan he doesn’t agree with, and we get that fighting with the teachers union is something he sees as good for him politically. But ultimately, the important thing is for Maryland to start using the flexibility ESSA affords us to make a difference in students’ lives. The state Department of Education and school board were stuck in a difficult position between the governor, the legislature and influential interest groups, and the plan they developed seeks to strike an appropriate balance on school accountability. Whether it doesn’t go far enough or goes too far remains to be seen, but it certainly does not appear to be out of line with plans the federal government is approving. We hope the Department of Education will quickly give its blessing to Maryland’s plan as well so the focus can return to providing a high quality education to all students.
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