Headed for the top?

Maryland got some very good news Tuesday, when the U.S. Department of Education announced that it was one of 18 states selected as finalists in the federal Race To The Top competition, which will award some $3.4 billion in additional aid to states that demonstrate a serious commitment to school reform. If successful, Maryland could win up to $250 million in grants to advance its reform effort.

But it's too early to break out the champagne. Previous experience has shown that though many are called, but few are chosen. In the first round of the competition earlier this year, only two of the 40 states that applied, Delaware and Tennessee, ended up as winners, largely because they alone managed to persuade all the major stakeholders in their systems — local school boards, school administrators and the teachers unions — to buy into the need for sweeping change.

Maryland didn't participate in that initial round; state superintendent of schools Nancy S. Grasmick rightly decided to wait for Gov. Martin O'Malley and the General Assembly to push through legislation to make the state more competitive by, among other things, tying teacher evaluations to student performance and extending by a year the time required for teachers to earn tenure.

Those efforts clearly have made Maryland a more serious contender for a Race To The Top award. Ms. Grasmick's case would be even stronger, however, if Montgomery County, the state's wealthiest jurisdiction, were as committed to reform as she is. The county has one of the most successful school systems in the state, and school and union officials there seem convinced they already are doing everything right. But it seems unfair that their resistance to change — which would benefit many of their own students too — should be a potential veto over other jurisdictions' chances of winning badly needed aid.

As part of the application process, Ms. Grasmick and Mr. O'Malley are scheduled to go to Washington next month for face-to-face interviews with U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who will surely ask them whether everything possible is being done to get Montgomery County on board. They need to be able to answer that question with an unequivocal "yes" — which means that between now and then, they both have their work cut out for them.

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