Creating opportunity for kids requires hard work, not soundbites

Guest commentary: Creating opportunity for kids requires hard work, not soundbites

By Del. Eric Luedtke

Regardless of their ideology or partisan affiliation, every Marylander should be able to agree on one straightforward statement: Every child should have an opportunity to get a great education every day, regardless of what school they attend.

The much more difficult question is, how we make that happen? We know some schools are underperforming. We know some kids don’t do well. We know that our children experience achievement gaps based on race, socioeconomic status, and disability. But we have also learned through decades of attempts at reform that there is no silver bullet solution, no easy fix. Anyone who tells you otherwise is flatly wrong.

The reality is that improving schools is incredibly difficult work. There are dozens of factors involved in a child’s individual achievement in school, from whether they have enough food or support at home to the presence or absence of learning disabilities to the quality of individual interactions with teachers. And there are similarly myriad factors affecting a teacher’s performance in the classroom and success at the school or school system level. In other words, creating real equal opportunity for kids is hard, frustrating, often thankless work. And it doesn’t fit well into sound bites and press conferences.

One of my many frustrations with the Hogan administration — from a good governance perspective and not a political one — is that this complexity seems lost on him and his education policy staff. The governor has repeatedly endorsed simplistic solutions to the complex problems in our schools and railed about them in press conferences, with little attention to the reality on the ground in our school systems.

Case in point: the Protect Our Schools Act, which sets guardrails for the state’s implementation of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). The governor and his staff have engaged in blistering partisan attacks on the bill, hoping to score political points with Marylanders with a twisted interpretation of the legislation.

The Protect Our Schools Act, which I introduced in the House and which my colleague Sen. Craig Zucker (D) introduced in the Senate, does two things. First, it would make sure that the success of schools is measured in more than just standardized test scores. Tests are important. But for the last 15 years we’ve seen what happens when schools are judged only on tests — testing and test preparation become the only things that matter.

The many other important tasks of schools fall by the wayside, like teaching kids to think critically and creatively, character education, and education in foreign language, the arts, and music. I witnessed this firsthand as a classroom teacher, when an innovative arts focused signature program that was established at a high needs school I taught at was progressively dismantled because of simplistic measures of school success.

Gov. Hogan says he agrees that too much testing is a problem. He was quoted in the papers saying that, “Kids aren’t really getting a good education that way.” But that was before. Now, he opposes the Protect Our Schools Act and has promised to veto it because he thinks that it doesn’t place enough weight on “accountability,” by which he means standardized testing. In fact, under the bill, 65 percent of the composite score used to measure school success would be rooted in testing-based indicators.

The rest focuses on other things that we know matter, like access to highly trained teachers, access to classes that prepare kids for college and careers, and class sizes. In short, Gov. Hogan was against too much standardized testing before he was for it.

The second portion of the bill prevents the State Board of Education from taking certain unilateral extreme actions to “fix” underperforming schools. These include forcing a school to privatize, forcing it to convert to a charter, or creating a new school district which would seize a neighborhood school out of a community’s hands and have it be run by state bureaucrats. Decades of school reform efforts have amply demonstrated that such privatization or radical restructuring schemes rarely work, in part because they are so divorced from the needs and interests of parents and communities.

There are, on the other hand, dozens of strategies that have shown some success, including creating community schools, implementing high quality peer assistance and review programs for teachers, and adding staff like counselors to provide social-emotional support for students. And to be clear — the bill does not even ban some of the options it mentions from ever happening. Charter school conversions are still possible, it’s just that a local community would have to make the decision to go forward with one rather than it being imposed from the outside by unelected state board members.

In other words, the bill protects local control of schools. In light of his likely unconstitutional order on school start dates, it probably isn’t too surprising that Gov. Hogan would so completely reject a community’s right to run its own schools. But the extremism of his comments took me by surprise. He claimed in a press conference that the bill traps kids in underperforming schools and gives no options for fixing them. No options.

Think about that for a second. The governor apparently thinks the only way to improve a school is for the State Board to privatize it, seize it, or force it to convert to a charter over the objections of parents. Such views are about as extreme as you get in education policy, and it should be no wonder the governor is being compared to Betsy DeVos.

This is the reason that aside from the State Board of Education, which Hogan appointed, and a couple of editorial boards, virtually every organization involved in education in Maryland supports the Protect Our Schools Act. Among them are the teachers unions, which the Hogan administration has attempted to turn into a political punching bag on this bill.

Leave aside for a second the wisdom of trying to reform schools by attacking teachers, and focus for a second on the other organizations that support the bill. Also in support of the Protect Our Schools Act are parents groups like the Maryland PTA and civil rights organizations like the NAACP, Disability Rights Maryland, CASA de Maryland, and the ACLU. Hogan has pitted himself against not just teachers but parents and those who speak for equal rights for all kids.

The Washington Post and Baltimore Sun editorial boards, meanwhile, seem to have been distracted by the argument that the state board and not the legislature should be making education policy. For decades, the argument goes, the legislature has stayed out of educational decision-making, deferring to the opinions of experts.

There are only two problems with this argument. Primary among them is that the state board under Larry Hogan is no longer an independent body of relatively neutral experts. Instead, it is a highly politicized body that holds a view of education that is far outside the mainstream of what Marylanders want. Its president, Andy Smarick, argued in a 2008 Education Next article that every urban public school should be converted to a charter, regardless of a school’s actual performance. Its vice president, Chester Finn, in a recent editorial in the Sun, spoke positively of other states that had intervened in schools by “outsourcing their management, or simply closing their doors.”

That’s not public school reform. That’s public school abandonment. And for a state with a long history of moderation, it is disturbing to see the governor entrust our schools to people with such extreme views.

More importantly, there has never been a time where the legislature has not been deeply involved in education policy. The only policy mandate in our state constitution requires that we establish a system of free public schools. The members of the legislature have traditionally deferred to the state board on details such as graduation requirements and curriculum, but democracy demands that the broader decisions about how our schools are run should be made by elected representatives of the people and not unelected bureaucrats.

We saw instances under the state’s application for an ESEA waiver and a Race to the Top grant where the state board submitted a plan to the federal government that included components which were not then allowable under state law. They then came back to the legislature, claiming that we had to make the changes or we would lose federal funding, regardless of how the people of Maryland felt. This violates the most fundamental principle in our government, that sovereignty should flow from the people through elected representatives to the executive branch, and not the opposite. Given this history, it is entirely appropriate for the legislature to engage in the state’s ESSA plan early in the process. In fact, federal law expects it. State legislatures are listed before State Boards of Education as a group that must be consulted on ESSA implementation.

I expect as the governor vetoes the bill and as we override his veto, we will hear more overheated rhetoric from the governor’s office. But this bill is clear. It says we need fewer standardized tests, and more than one way to measure the success of our schools. It says communities and parents should be involved in making decisions about the future of their schools. By vetoing the bill, the governor is supporting more standardized testing and extreme, undemocratic interventions in our schools. I sincerely hope the public is paying attention, and remembers the governor’s actions on election day next year.

Del. Eric Luedtke, a Montgomery County Democrat, is a lifelong educator serving in his second term in the House of Delegates.

Guest commentary: Creating opportunity for kids requires hard work, not soundbites

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