A bombshell, with uncertain force, is about to land on school reform in Maryland. It’s the startup in the next several weeks of the Accountability and Implementation Board (AIB) created under the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future. More than any other part of the blueprint, the AIB is a radical experiment in school governance — untested anywhere in the U.S. — with virtually limitless authority to make or break school reform for generations to come.
The AIB’s super-muscle comes from its unambiguous power to fully govern public schools. This means it can usurp the functions of the Maryland State Department of Education (MSDE) and control local school policies.
Predictably, formidable political groups opposed such a drastic departure from current law and practice. The MSDE board, state superintendent and local school district boards and superintendents argued that they would be micromanaged; in the process, they said, local control — so sacrosanct for so long — would be emasculated.
As a member of the Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education (known as the Kirwan Commission) that drafted the blueprint, I favored the concept of the AIB. I still do. But I recognized that opponents, though some were overwrought, had a point. The seven-member board, to be appointed by the governor from a list of nine persons just selected by the AIB nominating committee, could actually cause more bureaucracy and less accountability, unless it acts wisely.
The scope of the AIB’s mission is mind bending. It is to guide, monitor, evaluate and enforce the sweeping range of policy reforms and funding increases in the blueprint in every school in the state. Lest anyone forget, the blueprint reaches into every nook and cranny of public schools, including classrooms. For all practical purposes, the AIB is supposed to do everything that MSDE is already legally bound to do.
This came about — despite the powerful opposition to the all-encompassing AIB role — because of legislative frustration and fear. Members of the General Assembly had been infuriated for years over MSDE’s recurring mismanagement and lack of accountability (even before its pandemic fiascos). And liberals in particular, including teacher unions, knew they needed a credible accountability mechanism to mollify taxpayer skepticism about whether the new blueprint funding would be well spent.
Yet, can the AIB, with its meager staff of 15 and some funding for consultants, confront so many entrenched interests and avoid duplication and conflict with MSDE? The short and hopeful answer is yes. But, first, the AIB must recognize that it can only do its job if MSDE undergoes a management transformation and competently carries out its existing duties. MSDE must do the heavy lifting staff work — such as policy development, planning, monitoring and technical assistance — subject to AIB approval and oversight
And second, MSDE must be up to the challenge. It must put its own house in order, and be smart enough to use the AIB for cover and support as it tries to shake up the status quo.
There are promising signs that MSDE has gotten the message. Two months ago, the state board appointed a new state superintendent, Mohammed Choudhury, who seems to break the past mold. He’s under 40 years of age, open, off to a fast start and preaching the need for change. The most obvious example is his part in the state board’s reversal of its stand against a statewide mask mandate. Less visible but beginning to bubble up are efforts to strengthen state requirements for evidence-based instruction and monitoring of implementation of state and federal laws.
All of this will require not just resolve but resources. Abundant evidence points to the fact that even prior to the blueprint and COVID-19, MSDE personnel had shrunk, despite ever-expanding tasks and expectations. Moreover, staff salaries are sometimes significantly below comparable positions in local school districts, limiting the supply of the best management talent. The Kirwan Commission, therefore, recommended an outside audit to assess MSDE’s staff needs and organizational structure.
The AIB has no more immediate priority than to ensure that such a thorough audit or study is promptly conducted. That will signal its awareness that it does not have the practical means to reinvent the wheel of school governance or do MSDE’s work. Instead, its basic tasks are to build support for state and local efforts to implement the blueprint and then to oversee and evaluate outcomes.
If AIB does that, and if MSDE continues its self-improvement, the AIB bombshell will be a boon to reform, rather than a dud.
Kalman R. Hettleman (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an education policy analyst and advocate. He is a former member of Maryland’s Kirwan Commission on education reform and the Baltimore City school board.