By Delegate Eric Luedtke
There is no more sacred trust placed in us as leaders in Maryland than ensuring that the next generation of children has every opportunity to be successful in life. That Maryland has a strong public school system is unquestionable. That we also have schools that do not do an adequate job is also unquestionable.
We have work to do to ensure that every Maryland child has access to a great education. It is a moral imperative placed on us that we do so.
But in the face of this imperative, Gov. Hogan and his Republican allies in the General Assembly have offered only unproven right-wing pabulum about school vouchers and unregulated charter schools. They suggest that the best solution for underperforming public schools is some form of privatization. And they buttress this argument by claiming that adequate education funding can’t solve these problems.
It is frustrating to me as someone passionate about education to see debates about improving our schools sidetracked by ideological ideas that make for great sound bites but terrible solutions. Del. Trent Kittleman’s recent apologia in MarylandReporter.com defending the governor against Barry Rascovar’s critiques is a case in point.
Vouchers don’t work
Kittleman and Hogan argue in favor of private school vouchers like the BOOST scholarship program that Gov. Hogan fought for. Programs like these send taxpayer dollars to private schools and are premised on the idea that private schools will do a better job than public ones.
The evidence simply doesn’t bear this out. Three recent peer-reviewed studies, in Indiana, Louisiana, and Ohio, have suggested that students who use voucher programs actually do worse than kids who stay in public schools.
The study of Ohio’s charter program found that, “students who use vouchers to attend private schools have fared worse academically.” This study was performed by the Fordham Foundation, a conservative think tank that supports school choice. The evidence is increasingly clear that voucher programs can in fact hurt student achievement.
Leaving aside questions of achievement, there is a more fundamental issue with vouchers — the fact that most civil rights laws do not apply to private schools. For example, federal law requires all public schools to ensure that kids with disabilities have access to education. Private schools are not covered by the law, and as Gov. Hogan’s administration has implemented BOOST they have made no effort to ensure that private schools receiving your taxpayer dollars are serving kids with disabilities.
The result is predictable: on the admissions website of one of the largest recipients of BOOST funds, the school states that, “Those showing special needs or problems will not be able to continue at the school.” This kind of blatant discrimination should shock our consciences. I cannot fathom why any leader would support efforts to send public dollars to schools that daily violate the civil rights of Marylanders.
Del. Kittleman also raises the issue of charter schools. The truth is that the debate in Annapolis has not been focused on whether or not to have charter schools in Maryland. We have them already. They are among the best in the country.
Rather, the debate has centered on proposals from Governor Hogan to deregulate charter schools – to destroy a system that has worked for Maryland and replace it with a charter school Wild West.
While the research on charter schools is somewhat mixed, there is some clear evidence that has emerged that it is a bad idea to allow charter schools to operate without accountability and basic standards. Maryland’s charter schools are fabulous, and should continue to be an option, but it would be irresponsible to abandon Maryland’s model for an inferior one.
Funding plus reform
Finally, Del. Kittleman voices the oft-repeated accusation that increased school funding alone “hasn’t worked, and there is no earthly reason to believe it will work in the future.” I would challenge the delegate to find me anyone in Maryland who has argued that increased funding alone will improve schools.
That hyperbole aside, it is illogical to believe that because more funding alone hasn’t worked, we should cut funding.
What we need is funding plus reform. Good funding is necessary but not sufficient for improving schools.
I visited a school in the Brooklyn section of Baltimore City this spring, and entered a “classroom” for English language learners that could charitably be described as a closet. The school is overcrowded, a result of historic underinvestment in school buildings in Baltimore that we have been working to correct. In this glorified closet, a teacher was tasked with teaching five children English. I applaud the school’s staff for doing the best they can, but it is the fault of public officials that we place staff and students in situations like that in the first place.
The reality is that unless and until we meet the basic needs of our public schools, we will not be able to ensure the kind of education that every Maryland kid deserves. And that takes money.
Ideology, not facts
These ideas that we’ve seen in Del. Kittleman’s writing and elsewhere are based not in facts but in ideology. But our kids deserve real, practical fixes to the problems that our schools face, not sound bites and political philosophy.
Right now, the Kirwan Commission is engaging in the work of identifying those solutions. The ideas they are discussing have the potential to improve educational opportunities for Maryland’s children. Boosting funding for schools that serve high needs students. Improving teacher education so we are sure new teachers enter the classroom ready to teach. Changing the curriculum to respond to 21st century needs.
These solutions will require both money and a willingness to ruffle the status quo. And, unlike ideas that have been advocated for in the past by Gov. Hogan and Del. Kittleman, they have the potential to actually work.
The question that keeps me up at night is not whether we know what to do to improve our schools. It’s whether Maryland’s leaders have the political courage to make it happen.
Del. Eric Luedtke, D-Montgomery, chairs the education subcommittee of the House Ways and Means Committee. His email is Eric.Luedtke@house.state.md.us.