Funding reform

It's a shame that the federal "Race to the Top" grants for education reforms are being awarded on the state level, because while leaders in Annapolis debate whether to take the steps they'll need to compete, Baltimore Schools CEO Andrés Alonso is moving ahead with reforms more fundamental than even the ones the Obama administration is pushing.

The Sun's Liz Bowie reported Tuesday that Mr. Alonso is proposing to expand the concept of school choice to middle-schoolers in hopes of improving achievement and breaking a pattern in which too many Baltimore students drop out when they reach the ninth grade. What is particularly heartening about his efforts is that he is not imposing a one-size-fits-all approach, instead taking advantage of a variety of school structures that have been effective; and that he is basing his proposals on the premise that parents will make good decisions about their children's education.

The heart of Mr. Alonso's proposal is a plan to change or close 12 city schools that are not performing well. How did he pick the 12? They have low test scores and histories of discipline problems, but they are sadly not unique in that regard. What makes them different is their declining enrollments -- a sign, Mr. Alonso says, that parents have lost faith in them. He is replacing some with traditional middle schools, some with charter schools and some with transformation schools, which span grades six through 12. His resistance to picking one idea and replicating it everywhere reflects a rare commodity: a reformer who knows he doesn't have all the answers. Mr. Alonso didn't come to Baltimore with a theory on how to fix an urban school district but with a belief that Baltimore's schools can and must be fixed. That's a key difference.

These changes will cause upheaval, which is piled on top of much more that he has caused with his annual reconfiguring of the district. But what would make such changes unsettling to students and parents would be a sense that they are pawns in the process. Instead, Mr. Alonso's tinkering has had the effect of giving them more control and choice. If Mr. Alonso is goign to be successful in the long run -- both in improving achievement and in maintaining support for his reforms -- that may be the reason why.

What's important to remember, however, is that no matter how successful the changes Mr. Alonso has made turn out to be, Baltimore can't do it all on its own. The city, like school districts across Maryland, is looking at a funding cliff in 2012, when the initial $200 million in federal stimulus funds for education provided by the Obama administration runs out. The only way to avoid damaging program cuts then will be federal Race to the Top funds, but unlike stimulus dollars, which are given to every state, those funds will only go to states that demonstrate a strong commitment to fundamental reform.

That's why it's crucial for lawmakers to approve the changes that state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick has proposed to make Maryland a viable contender for federal funds, including extending the time teachers must serve before getting tenure from two years to three or more, tying teacher pay to performance and awarding merit pay to teachers in hard-to-staff subjects such as science and math. Maryland's charter school law also needs to be upgraded to allow state funding of capital projects at charter schools and an independent authority to approve new charter school applications. These are just the minimum steps the state must take to show it is serious about reform.

The progress Baltimore's schools have been able to make was only possible because of the massive infusion of federal funds to the state. Last year's tiny increase in the city school budget barely covered operating costs, even after deep cuts at its central office. If Maryland can't win federal Race to the Top funds this year, Baltimore and every school district in the state stand to regress. Maryland can no longer afford the luxury of the status quo. In a time of looming shortages, those federal Race to the Top dollars aren't just the gravy on top -- they're the basic meal.

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