Maryland Showdown on Testing, Charters, and the Direction of Public Schools

AP Photo/Patrick Semansky

Maryland Governor Larry Hogan delivers his annual State of the State address to a joint session of the legislature in Annapolis, Wednesday, February 1, 2017. 

Politicians and policy experts have long debated how and whether to hold schools accountable for what students learn. For 13 years under the controversial Bush-era No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), the federal government required states to identify schools that were failing by the metric of standardized test scores, and dictated how schools should intervene. Critics said the law amounted to untenable and unacceptable levels of federal overreach, and ultimately did little to close academic achievement gaps. Defenders say the law, while imperfect, led to small yet significant gains in student achievement, particularly for black, Hispanic, and low-income children.

At the end of 2015, Congress passed NCLB’s successor, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which limits the federal government’s role in shaping school accountability, and gives states considerably more discretion to craft their own plans. In order to receive federal funds, however, each state has to submit its plan for federal approval. These plans are due this coming fall, and the law is supposed to take full effect during the 2017-2018 school year.

A heated battle over the future of Maryland’s plan—specifically, how much weight standardized test scores should be given in determining a school’s rating, and how much power the state should have over low-performing schools—has become a flashpoint in the polarized education reform wars, not only within Maryland but across the country. At the crux of the debate are questions about who gets to speak on behalf of racial minorities and low-income children, and what school accountability should look like in the age of Donald Trump. 

Last fall, the Maryland Board of Education—a 12-member body, ten of whom were appointed by the state’s Republican governor, Larry Hogan—released an initial draft accountability plan. The plan did not include details about what specific interventions should be taken if schools are deemed low-performing, but the board’s president, Andy Smarick, a former George W. Bush education official and a current resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, told The Baltimore Sun that he favored “bolder” approaches than Maryland has taken in the past. In February, Governor Hogan sent Smarick and Maryland’s state superintendent of schools a letter encouraging them to include private school vouchers, charter schools, and a state-run “recovery” school district as specific interventions in Maryland’s ESSA plan. Under current Maryland law, the state education department submits the plan to the state education board, which has the final authority to approve, amend, or reject it before sending it on to the federal government.

In response, Maryland’s Democratic-controlled legislature has been working with teachers unions and education advocates on legislation that would shape the direction of the state’s accountability plan, effectively limiting how much Hogan’s appointees could decide on their own.

States have a lot more freedom under ESSA than they did before, but they don’t have total freedom. ESSA dictates that when crafting accountability plans, states must assign indicators of academic performance “much greater weight” than other measures like class size and school climate. But what this language means in practice isn’t so clear. Education reformers say it means that a significant majority of a school’s accountability rating should hinge on standardized test scores—at least 70 percent. Last week, for example, the D.C. State Board of Education approved a plan that would make 70 percent of D.C.’s school accountability rating based on student growth and proficiency scores. (D.C. reformers originally pushed for testing measures to comprise 80 percent of a school’s score, but that percentage dropped amidst criticism.)

In mid-March Maryland’s House passed a union-backed bill—“The Protect Our Schools Act”—that would cap standardized testing measures at 65 percent of a school’s accountability score. Thirty-five percent would be reserved for indicators like class size, absenteeism, and school climate. The bill also would prevent the state from using vouchers and charters as school turnaround interventions, bar the creation of a state-run school district, and require districts and the state to negotiate any school improvement plan with the local teachers union. It passed 91-46, with a veto-proof majority.

Last week, as the state senate prepared to vote on the bill, Governor Hogan called it “misguided and horrible” and vowed to veto it should it land on his desk. In a press conference, the governor claimed the bill “will make it nearly impossible for [Maryland] to save some of these persistently failing schools.”

Maryland’s state board of education also expressed strong opposition to the bill. Chester E. Finn, Jr., the vice president of Maryland’s school board and a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Fordham Institute, a conservative education think tank, called the passage of the Protect Our Schools Act “painful.” 

Market-driven education reform organizations also moved into high gear to defeat the bill. MarylandCAN, a reform advocacy group, released a statement saying the bill “hurts children.” The head of Maryland’s Alliance of Public Charter Schools said it would be “most damaging for students within Maryland’s minority and low-income populations who need every opportunity available to them to lower the achievement gap—not being held to lower sub-par standards.”

The bill’s supporters rallied to its defense. On Monday, the Maryland State Education Association (MSEA) put out a statement that said, “while the Protect Our Schools Act is supported by teachers, the Maryland PTA, civil rights groups—including the ACLU of Maryland and CASA de Maryland—and leading education scholars, it is only opposed by national school privatization advocates and Governor Hogan’s administration.”

Linda Darling-Hammond, a Stanford education professor and the president of the Learning Policy Institute, sent a letter to the Maryland state Senate last week to voice her support for the bill. “While academic outcome indicators are important, it is equally important to include indicators of student and school conditions that predict outcomes, so that educators have information to use for diagnostic purposes and improvement decisions,” she wrote. “By including school quality indicators [such as access to effective teachers and college-ready coursework] and using them in meaningful ways, parents, educators, and education stakeholders can have a richer understanding of what is going on in a school and what is fostering or delaying its success.”

Pedro Noguera, a professor at UCLA’s graduate school of education, also sent a letter to the senate expressing support for the bill, saying he felt it would provide Maryland with “the strong accountability system that it needs and enable it to be positioned to monitor school and student performance, and draw attention to inequities in learning opportunities that research has shown obstruct effort to close achievement gaps.”

Education reform groups opposed to the bill argue that it will have the opposite effect, actually obfuscating information about achievement gaps and inequities.

On Tuesday morning, the Maryland Senate passed the Protect Our Schools Act with a final vote of 32-15. The House concurred Tuesday night, also with a veto-proof margin, and it now heads to Larry Hogan. 

Teacher unions and other education advocates who favor the bill have been stressing that the Protect Our Schools Act serves as a preemptive measure against school privatization, particularly since Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, both advocates of charters and vouchers, now guide federal policy. The MSEA also claims that Hogan has ignored their efforts to collaborate on school improvement.

“Since the day after his election, we’ve reached out to the governor repeatedly to try and put partisanship aside and work with him on reducing over-testing and other education issues,” says MSEA’s communication director, Adam Mendelson. “We’re still waiting on him to return our calls and include public educators’ voices in his policy development.”

How far Hogan will go in fighting the Democratic-controlled legislature over school reform remains an open question. Despite his statewide popularity, the Republican governor is expected to face a tough reelection battle in 2018, and Maryland voters express strong support for public education. 

The Washington Post recently found that 41 percent of registered voters said they’d support Hogan for a second term, down from 46 percent in September. Maryland went for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election by 26 points. 

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