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Protect our schools ... from what?

Gov. Larry Hogan on Friday blasted an education reform bill that's moving through the General Assembly that he called disastrous and irresponsible. (Pamela Wood / Baltimore Sun)

Democrats in the General Assembly moved this week to send Gov. Larry Hogan a bill he has vowed to veto that would restrict the state Board of Education's authority to craft a school accountability plan under the federal government's Every Student Succeeds Act. They call it a necessary measure to prevent the Donald Trump/Betsy DeVos privatization agenda from taking hold in Maryland. Governor Hogan calls it a massive over-reach by the legislature that could jeopardize hundreds of millions of dollars in federal education funding while leaving thousands of kids in failing schools.

In truth, it's neither as disastrous as the governor suggests nor as necessary as legislators claim. But we agree with Mr. Hogan that it represents more direct meddling by the General Assembly into the state school board's business than is wise. The legislature does have the authority under the state constitution to promulgate educational policy, but it has long vested substantial latitude to do so in the state superintendent and board of education, with the effect that schools have been far more insulated from politics in Maryland than they are in other states. That is not a tradition we should abandon.

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The legislation, called the Protect our Schools Act, does two main things. First it specifies what factors should be considered in the state's school accountability system and what weights should be afforded them. Under ESSA, states are required to consider a wider variety of factors than under its predecessor, No Child Left Behind, including measures of both academic achievement and student growth and also school quality measures like the availability of AP classes, the presence of highly qualified teachers and the results of school climate surveys. The state board of education developed a draft policy after dozens of meetings with stakeholders, surveys, committee hearings and other efforts to gather and evaluate input, and it planned at least two more drafts before submitting its proposal to the federal government this summer. The legislature is seeking to override that, in part by assigning less weight to achievement measures than the board proposed (though the final version of the bill upped their share to 65 percent of the final score rather than the original 55 percent).

That's what caused the Hogan administration to warn that the bill could put federal funding at risk; Obama administration regulations required that the academic factors be weighted significantly more heavily than the school quality measures. The non-partisan Department of Legislative Services also warned of the possible loss of funds. But that point may be moot; this month, Congress passed resolutions rejecting the Obama administration regulations, and President Trump has signed them. It now appears likely that states will have substantially more latitude to develop systems as they see fit. That may not be a good thing in the grand scheme of things, but it does suggest that Maryland's federal funds are safe — from this threat, at least.

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The second major impact of the bill is to restrict how the state could intervene in failing schools. Among other things, it prohibits establishing a state-wide "recovery district" for failing schools, creating a school without the approval of the local board, converting a school to a charter, using vouchers or some other means to send public school students to private schools or contracting with a for-profit educational company. But the state board can't actually do those things without the legislature's approval anyway. It could include them in the accountability plan it sends to the federal government — indeed, Governor Hogan sent a letter to the board encouraging it to adopt some of them — but it couldn't actually put them in practice without the legislature's approval. Lawmakers worry that if those measures are in the plan, the federal government could hold Maryland accountable for not following through, but given the move by Republicans in Congress and the Trump administration to provide more leeway to the states, that doesn't seem likely.

Proponents of the bill say they are merely setting up "guardrails" to prevent the school board from going too far off course in its implementation of ESSA, but at least in some regards, the legislation actually amounts to guide rails prescribing where to go, sometimes in questionable directions. To be sure, the General Assembly put substantial effort into considering issues related to this bill, but it pales in comparison to the outreach, research and deliberation the state board has invested in it. Legislators can and should offer input into the process, just as Governor Hogan has, but ultimately, we should leave the decision in the hands of an independent school board. We support Governor Hogan's veto.

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