Maryland was rated the best public education system in the country for five consecutive years under Democratic Governor O’Malley, through 2013, with a B+ rating by Education Week. But since the election of Republican Larry Hogan in 2014, the state dropped to fifth overall last year, and 42 nd in the achievement gap. After a four-year hiatus, tuition has begun to rise at the college level.
The Republican Governor has tried to reduce payments based on higher educational costs in certain jurisdictions, such as Montgomery County, as well as trying to cut the state contribution to teacher pensions, while he stocks the state school board with privatizers and charter enthusiasts. He has also opened the door to transferring funds earmarked for public education to private schools (the BOAST bills), which progressives successfully opposed for years and against which I personally successfully led an ad hoc coalition in 2009. These efforts are part of the national trend to undermine public education, and though Hogan postures as a moderate Republican, we cannot cede any ground on this fundamental principle of democracy.
Our most notable problem in education is that achievement gap. As enrollment in public schools in Montgomery County continues to grow, that gap continues to worsen. Today the issues of race, ethnicity and immigration are foremost in the public mind, making this a good opportunity to make real progress. There is still no movement on universal pre-K education, and lagging school modernization and new construction. While Montgomery County, with 18% of the state’s student population, is receiving 16% of the capital improvement funds, (much better than the 11% of five years ago), it is still an inadequate amount to keep pace with enrollment growth.
The main problem – the gap in scores between majority and minority students - has many causes. Serious efforts have been made to rectify the problem, but since certain fundamental issues have been marginalized, the approaches have been flawed.
We must realize that achievement in school is not an isolated phenomenon. The most critical factor is a supportive and financially secure home, and in an economy where growing inequality forces more to struggle even when working multiple jobs, the nurturing home environment will suffer. The rise in the state minimum wage has helped, and the near-future rise in the minimum in Montgomery to $15 per hour will assist even more. Still, this is a very serious problem where over one third of students in the county receive free lunches. Teachers are not social workers, and they can’t be expected to solve society’s problems.
We have learned from the cognitive science revolution of the past two decades that the most important phase of development begins in utero and lasts through age five. Without committed efforts to improving the lives of young children and this includes the institution of universal pre-K education for young children from age 3-4, the achievement gap will remain.
Critics talk about the impossibility of funding such universal programs, but in a world where interest rates are so low that money is virtually free, it is a shame that we aren’t making the effort. We can also re-engineer our K-12 system, phasing out 12 th grade which most students spend either in college-level classes or just bide their time until graduation, and replace it with a gap year or community service. A national draft for community service would be preferable, to rebuild national cohesion, but short of that we can encourage our students to move sooner to college or technical schools, apprenticeship training, or take the time to serve. The money saved can be used to fund a year or more of pre-K.
The issue of votech, or vocational technology, needs to be jump-started. When I was a child there were many first-rate votech high schools in New York, where those who couldn’t afford college or had no interest in it could go to learn the skills to become a professional technician. Over the past three decades we’ve inadvertently denigrated the concept of vocational skills by pushing everyone to attend college. That has been counterproductive, and we need to not only bolster those programs but remove the stigma from votech. Many of those jobs pay extremely well, and the need will only grow with the further automation of the economy associated with the rise of machine learning. In addition, we should continue to support the growth of coding programs, as is happening throughout the University of Maryland system but which should be offered beginning in middle school. We must also boost civics classes, which we’ve forgotten in our race to boost our STEM offerings, and which has brought about our loss of national sovereignty the past year.
Fundamentally, K-12 schools should be providing a liberal education, to prepare students for all contingencies. Our obsessive emphasis on test scores is misplaced and counter-productive. We must liberate teachers to re-instill the pure love of learning.
Some of these issues are currently being considered by the Kirwan Commission, or the “Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education.” The Commission’s mandate is to “review and assess current education financing formulas and accountability measures, and how each local school system is spending its funds.” In addition, the commission is considering whether schools should include universal pre-kindergarten, and additional funding for community schools, teacher salaries and capital projects. The report is due shortly.
Together – with a willingness to be flexible and creative, to buck tradition and allow the next generation to inspire us with their passions – we can recreate an America first in science, technology, civics and liberal literacy here in Maryland.