It didn't mean a whole lot when Education Week said Maryland had the top public schools in the nation for five years in a row, and it doesn't mean much now that the newspaper says they're third-best. The practical upshot, if there is one, is that we won't have to listen to Gov.-elect Larry Hogan bragging incessantly about the state's No. 1 ranked schools like Gov. Martin O'Malley did — unless, of course, Education Week changes its criteria again and Maryland regains the top spot, at which point we'll no doubt be hearing about it ad nauseam.
Maryland has some structural advantages that help it do well in Education Week's eyes. The state's adults are, on average, affluent and highly educated compared to almost all other states, and that tends to correlate well with their children's academic performance. It also means there is a large political constituency that values education highly and is willing and able to support the public schools handsomely through taxes. Furthermore, those dollars are allocated relatively equitably both because of the small number of school systems here compared to other states and because of commitments on the state level to redistribute money among those districts based on economic need.
But some of Maryland's strengths were sapped by methodology changes the publication's editors said were designed to streamline their ranking system and make it more outcome-focused. Gone are measures of a state's standards, accountability and testing (an area in which Maryland was a pioneer but which is less relevant in the era of the Common Core); "transitions and alignment," which dealt with pre-K and college access; and measures of teacher quality and preparation. The state had historically done well in all three, and without them Maryland wouldn't have been No. 1 in the last few editions of the report card either. Considering the data for what is arguably the most important element of Education Week's rankings — student achievement — were not updated, Maryland's apparent dip means little or nothing.
But a state-wide ranking shouldn't have weighed much on the minds of parents or policymakers in the first place, since students don't go to some composite of all of Maryland's schools but to the ones in their communities, many of which are among the best in the nation, but many of which lag far behind — a distinction that is still distressingly correlated with poverty and race. That problem, not just here but nationally, has been the focus of reform efforts from No Child Left Behind to Race to the Top to the Common Core, but it stubbornly remains, particularly in Baltimore. While Maryland as a whole consistently scores near the top in the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a rigorous benchmarking exam, Baltimore's students lag in the bottom third of urban districts.
Even in the "we're No. 1" days, Maryland officials have acknowledged that disparity, but what has become clear is that just as the problem didn't develop overnight, it can't be remedied overnight either. However, two steps on the state level could help remedy the situation — one of which Gov.-elect Larry Hogan has said he will pursue, the other of which he has said he will not.
Charter schools are not a panacea — data show they do not inherently perform better than traditional schools — but they can and should be part of the solution. By providing more choices, they have the potential to lead to greater parent and student engagement and to foster innovative educational models. But Maryland's charter law is too restrictive and has stifled the schools' development everywhere except in Baltimore, and even there it has made it difficult for some schools to live up to their potential. Mr. Hogan has said he will seek an expansion of Maryland's charter law, and we hope the General Assembly will work with him on the issue.
The expansion of high-quality pre-K also needs to be a priority. Education Week highlighted the issue in a separate report, which rated Maryland just in the middle of the pack when it came to access to early childhood education — in fact, the number of 3- and 4-year-olds in pre-K is on the decline here at a time when other states are making it universal. Mr. Hogan's opponent in November's election, Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown, made universal pre-K a centerpiece of his campaign, but the governor-elect said at the time that while he supports the concept, Maryland can't afford it right now. And in fairness, Mr. Brown didn't really identify a way to pay for it.
Last year, Maryland approved a modest, $4.3 million expansion of its state-funded pre-K programs for low-income families, and in December, the Obama administration awarded the state a $15 million grant to expand it further. Between the two sources of new funds, the state will be able to provide pre-K for about 4,500 more students. The federal grant could be renewed for up to three more years, but it is competitive — only 18 states got it this time — and unless the state preserves its financial commitment, it won't get the money. Mr. Hogan may be right that it is not the time for a major expansion of pre-K, but for the sake of the 4,500 students who would otherwise do without, we certainly hope he at least maintains the status quo.