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The Thornton Commission reborn?

A commission under the chairmanship of former University of Maryland Chancellor William Kirwan has been studying the “adequacy” of financing of Maryland’s K-12 education system. It is carefully composed of only two designees of the governor (because of the danger that the governor sometimes is a Republican), 10 designees of the state’s gerrymandered and perpetually Democratic legislature, eight designees of the various segments of the state’s public education establishment, two designees of the Maryland Association of Counties and three ex officio members. The private schools that still command the allegiance of about 10 percent of the state’s taxpayers and parents are entirely unrepresented.

The commission is commanded by statute to use the same education consultants as were used by the Thornton Commission on school finance of 15 years ago, and must report in an election year, so that the legislature is under maximum pressure to accept its recommendations.

The Thornton Commission recommended added expenditures of $1.1 billion annually, and few changes in practices, producing few measurable improvements in school performance. The new commission is programmed to do the same, and skeptics about its program will be stigmatized as enemies of education, enlightenment and the Maryland way of government.

But here is a test by which the worth of the commissions’s recommendations, due next year, may be examined: Does it foster a sensible model of a public school?

In other words, does it foster a school:

1. In which teachers and principals retain control over student discipline, without fear of “disparate impact” claims, procedural steeplechases or ruinous attorneys’ fee awards;

2. In which disruptive students are promptly removed from the classroom, so as not to delay or disturb the education of other students;

3. In which hiring of teachers is controlled at the building level, without seniority “bumping” and other curtailments on administrators’ ability select their teachers;

4. In which the principal is selected by and responsible to a building-level board, enlisting the energies of parents, teachers and community members with relevant expertise;

5. That is free, like private schools, to recruit its teachers from the 90 percent of college graduates excluded from the teaching force by today’s public school certification rules;

6. That, unlike most of today’s public schools, can hire properly qualified teachers of physics, chemistry, computer science, Arabic, Chinese and other critical languages and teachers trained to educate the blind, the deaf and the seriously physically disabled without being obstructed by the unions’ single salary schedule;

7. That can adjust its salary schedules to recruit members of single-earner families in the interest of not having an almost entirely female teaching force;

8. That includes in its teaching force persons of varied ages and backgrounds, including career changers, scientists, returning housewives and retired military, law enforcement, business, professional and civil service personnel;

9. In which inadequate teachers, as determined by a principal and building-level board, can be terminated without lengthy grievance procedures;

10. In which learning disabilities are identified early in a student’s career by school health examinations;

11. That takes seriously discouraging drug use among its students and does not, for fear of lawsuits, relegate them to the tender mercies of the criminal justice system;

12. In which the quality of teachers renders unnecessary heavily prescribed curricula; in which books are read, not bite-sized chunks of them; and in which “teaching to the test” is unknown;

13. That treats 11th and 12th graders like the incipient adults they are, separating them from adolescents;

14. That does not shrink from the inculcation of cultural and religious traditions and values, and respects parental rights of choice in this respect;

15. In which teachers are rewarded with adequate salaries, not with overly elaborate fringe benefits encouraging malingering and “gaming the system,” and in which “burned out” teachers are not locked into their jobs by seniority benefits and vesting requirements for pensions;

16. With meaningful and internationally recognized graduation standards that cannot be waived by reason of supposed “disparate impact”;

17. With meaningful connections with the ensuing experiences, educational or industrial, of its graduates;

18. In which disabled students enjoy the services of specially qualified and properly paid teachers, and resources are not wasted on bureaucracies preparing “individual treatment plans”;

19. Whose teachers are able to use new distance learning and digital technologies, free of state-level restrictions imposed by the unions.

Will the schools liberally financed by the Kirwan Commission’s plan correspond to this model?

Don’t hold your breath.

George W. Liebmann, a Baltimore lawyer, is the volunteer executive director of the Calvert Institute for Policy Research in Baltimore and the author of various books on public policy, including “Solving Problems Without Large Government” (Praeger, 2000), reprinted as “Neighborhood Futures,” (Transaction Books, 2004) which discusses education issues.

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