As if Maryland didn't already have enough fiscal and budgetary problems, a handful of state lawmakers are now threatening to cost the state a $250 million federal award for its ambitious school reform effort — all over a dispute about the meaning of the word "significant." The linguistic hair-splitting would be almost comical if the stakes weren't so high. But unless Gov. Martin O'Malley and state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick restore some sanity to the bickering, Maryland could risk losing its Race to the Top award.
The problem emerged on Monday, when a legislative panel in Annapolis rejected a proposed regulation that would require 50 percent of a teacher's evaluation to be based on growth in student achievement. The regulation stemmed from a state law passed earlier this year calling for student performance to be a "significant" part of teacher evaluations, which was enacted expressly to boost Maryland's chances to win a share of the federal Race to the Top billions. Yet the panel balked at approving the regulation. The reason? "Fifty percent" is different from "significant." The legislature considered putting a specific percentage on the question but left it up to the Board of Education's discretion. Now this panel of lawmakers has apparently decided that the board's discretion isn't good enough.
Never mind that tying teacher evaluations to student performance was one of the cornerstones of Maryland's winning application, or that scrapping it almost certainly would prompt the feds to take back the grant. With the state facing a $1.6 billion budget shortfall this year, losing the federal education grant could wreak havoc on Maryland's already alarming fiscal situation. Yet the lawmakers who voted 12-3 to reject the regulation would rather re-litigate the debate over teacher evaluations than move the state forward.
The matter will now go back to the board of education, which meets next on Dec. 14. The board can either modify the regulation or ask Governor O'Malley to put it into effect as is — the panel acts only in an advisory capacity and cannot block the measure over the governor's objection. If all else fails, Mr. O'Malley should use his power to unilaterally implement the regulation in order to assure Maryland keeps its Race to the Top Award.
In the meantime, the state board might explore a possible compromise with panel members drawing on the experience of other states, such as Delaware, that tie teacher evaluations to student achievement without a 50 percent rule. In those states, the exact weight given to student achievement in a teacher's evaluation may vary, but a teacher cannot be rated "effective" if the student achievement component isn't satisfactory. In other words, even without a 50 percent rule, a teacher much be effective in student achievement in order to be considered effective overall.
Such an arrangement would fulfill the spirit of the Maryland's law mandating a "significant" part of teacher evaluations be tied to student achievement, and it probably would also satisfy the feds that Maryland wasn't backing off its commitment to serious reform.
What the board should not consider is any attempt to dilute the law's intent by watering down the regulations meant to enforce it. That could be fatal to efforts to transform Maryland's schools. The state of Ohio, for example, is currently embroiled in angry debate over whether the new incoming Republican governor's plan to dump parts of the school reform agenda of his Democratic predecessor will cause the state to forfeit its $400 million in Race to the Top award.
The 12 members of the Maryland panel who voted to reject the state board's regulation may have been trying to get a better deal for the teachers unions that oppose the 50 percent rule. But the best way to do that is to work with the board to make sure the evaluation process is fair and objective, not to nibble away at core principles of reform until they become meaningless. States that don't use the 50 percent rule actually make student achievement an even more crucial element of evaluations, no matter what percentage they assign, and the federal government has shown itself to be serious about pulling back funds from states that don't live up to their plans. Maryland made a good faith effort to win its Race to the Top award, and it can't afford to start backtracking now.