Kalman Hettleman: A Below-the-Radar, Do-or-Die Bill for School Reform
State Superintendent of Schools Mohammed Choudhury has pulled off a master stroke. He is asking the General Assembly to strengthen the ability of the Maryland State Department of Education to hire personnel and procure needed supports.
The bill to accomplish this, Senate Bill 794 seems on the surface like humdrum bureaucratic inside baseball. It’s been barely noticed. Yet, in reality, it is not much of a stretch to say that the success of the entire Maryland Blueprint for school reform may well depend on its enactment.
Here’s why. The Blueprint can’t be implemented effectively unless State Department of Education (MSDE) provides local school districts with high standards, guidance on evidence-based best practices, technical assistance including teacher training, and close monitoring, and carries out innumerable new tasks imposed by the Blueprint. Mr. Choudhury lays this out in his excellent plan presented to the Blueprint Accountability and Implementation Board.
However, the work can’t be done without top educational talent, and MSDE has been woefully short of staff capacity and resources for years.
As a member of the Kirwan Commission, I pointed out that MSDE staffing had been shrinking while its duties were expanding, even before the Blueprint. Also, salaries of MSDE personnel were below the salaries of competitive local districts. Notably, the Blueprint substantially raises salaries for teachers in local school systems while bypassing pay for MSDE staff.
For these reasons, I helped frame a provision in Senate Bill 1030 of 2019, the first Blueprint bill, that required a study of MSDE’s management capacity. That study never happened for reasons which were never publicly explained. Then, before Mr. Choudhury took office last July, I wrote that he should “rebuild MSDE’s management capacity and culture.”
Mr. Choudhury gets it. In support of SB 794, he told members of the Senate Budget & Taxation Committee that it gives MSDE the tools to “ensure the Blueprint is truly transformational.” He added that other entities within state government have the kind of flexibility he is seeking.
Legislators and education advocates need to get the message as well. Passage of the bill is far from certain. Some key players in the education establishment resist a stronger state role. State agencies that govern budgets, personnel and procurement protect their turf too. And at the initial hearing last week, several unions opposed the bill. They erred in claiming that that the bill would gut basic safeguards for union members. Still, it seems apparent that the General Assembly will face pressure from protectors of the status quo.
I am no expert on the intricate workings of state personnel and procurement laws. But I was Maryland secretary of human resources under Gov. Harry Hughes, and I know that bureaucratic business-as-usual can make or break reform efforts. Gov. Hughes supported his cabinet in ways that MSDE can’t expect from Gov. Larry Hogan, who has adamantly tried to defeat the Blueprint.
So, true education reformers must mobilize to support SB 794. The Maryland Education Coalition, the largest group of education stakeholders in Maryland (I am a member), is leading the way. Others must join and show even more muscle than they did in pressuring Gov. Hogan to restore about $140 million in Blueprint funding. Bravo: that money is vital. But it represents less than one percent of all funding for public schools. On the other hand, MSDE’s management authority and flexibility will greatly impact the effectiveness of all state and local funding for public schools. Better management is at least as essential as more money.
Mr. Choudhury offers hope of the kind of leadership that MSDE has been long lacking. He’s saying: I wholeheartedly support the Blueprint; I welcome the challenge to achieve bold equity-driven reform in partnership with local school districts and the Accountability and Implementation Board; and I want to be held accountable — just give me the tools to get the job done.
SB 794 is a big step in that direction. We can’t hold Mr. Choudhury and MSDE accountable unless we untie their hands.