ANNAPOLIS – Poll after poll reveal the same thing: Education is the top issue on voters’ minds this year. So it’s no wonder that Democratic Gov. Parris N. Glendening and Republican challenger Ellen R. Sauerbrey have said improving education is No. 1 with them, too.
Indeed, they say, it’s their priority, their main focus, their passion. And they often sound a lot alike: Both want to hire more teachers, make schools safer, build more schools and remove disruptive students from the classroom. The candidates have also said they want to recruit better teachers, toughen certification standards and strengthen reading and math programs.
But despite their similarities, some significant differences separate Glendening and Sauerbrey. Among them: whether to permit legislators to dole out college scholarships, how to distribute public school funds and how to certify teachers.
Since taking office in 1995, the governor, a former University of Maryland politics professor, has said he has renovated more than 6,000 classrooms. He’s also said he’s spent 33 percent more on education than in the previous four years.
“His record speaks for itself,” said Len Foxwell, a Glendening spokesman.
The governor also has spent $630 million on school construction projects during his four years in office, $5 million more than in the eight years of former Gov. William Donald Schaefer’s tenure, said Don Vandrey, a Glendening spokesman.
And Glendening said he’s brought computers to more than 1,000 of the state’s nearly 1,300 public schools.
“Education is more than his top priority,” Foxwell said. “It is his passion.”
If elected, the governor said he plans to hire 1,100 new teachers to reduce class size, Vandrey said. He also promised to spend an additional $500 million on school construction.
Glendening critics say that – while most of his figures are accurate – the governor has inflated some, by counting, for instance, classrooms that are slated for renovations but have yet to be touched.
Sauerbrey spokeswoman Carol Hirschburg is harsher: She said Glendening stole the Republican candidate’s ideas for education – from hiring more teachers to introducing more reading initiatives.
“It wasn’t a week after we came out with our education platform that he came out with the same thing,” she said. “The only thing is he’s had four years to do the things he hasn’t done.”
Sauerbrey, a former high school biology teacher, has said that if elected she plans to hire 1,001 new teachers and teach children phonics – learning words by sounding them out – so they know how to read by the end of first grade.
Teachers now use a blend of phonics and the “whole language system,” or learning words in context while reading, said Ron Peiffer, spokesman for the Maryland State Department of Education.
Sauerbrey also supports giving local governments the right to audit their own school systems, so taxpayers can account for their money in education.
According to the Maryland State Department of Education, the legislature gave local governments that power two years ago.LEGISLATIVE SCHOLARSHIPS
Though the practice has been criticized for years, Maryland legislators are allowed to hand out college scholarships to students living in their districts.
Under the program, each state senator can award $138,000 a year, said Jeff Welsh, spokesman for the Maryland Higher Education Commission. Delegates, over a four-year period, can award $18,800.
The scholarships are neither merit-based nor need-based, and legislators are free to give them to Maryland students who plan on attending Maryland universities and colleges.
Sauerbrey has called the program a “national embarrassment” and said she will work to abolish it if elected governor.
“We need to be offering scholarships to promising new teachers, not students selected by legislators,” she said in a statement last month. “I will not rest until we have ended this shameful program.”
Glendening has not taken a position for or against legislative scholarships, said Vandrey. “It’s the legislature’s program and he’s not weighed in on the issue,” he said.
Kathleen Skullney, executive director of Common Cause/Maryland, a nonpartisan citizens’ lobbying group, derided the scholarship program, calling it a tool to win votes. “I am disappointed by any candidate who doesn’t see the obvious problems with such an outright patronage system,” she said.
SCHOOL FUNDING FORMULAS
Both Glendening and Sauerbrey believe the key to improving education is spending money in the classroom.
Sauerbrey has proposed a 90-10 Rule, which would guarantee that 90 percent of all new school operating funds go directly into the classroom for, among other things, textbooks, teacher salaries and computers.
The remaining 10 percent would be used for overhead and administrative costs such as running a school’s front office and paying the salaries of bureaucrats.
“She believes educational excellence begins in the classroom and funding should reflect that,” said Anne Hubbard, a Sauerbrey spokeswoman.
The Glendening campaign, on the other hand, scoffs at the 90-10 proposal as evidence that Sauerbrey isn’t aware of what she’s talking about.
The governor now spends 96 percent of the state’s school budget – $5.3 billion – on classroom use, according to the Maryland State Department of Education. Only 4 percent, or $212 million, goes to administrative costs.
“Why does she want to increase the bureaucracy?” MSTA President Karl Pence asked. “This is just another example of her not being attentive.”
Not so, says Stephen Wallis, a Howard County public school administrator, who doubts the Glendening figures.
“Many people find the 96 percent suspect,” Wallis said.TEACHER CERTIFICATION
In Maryland, the governor appoints a 25- member Professional Standards and Teachers Education Board, which certifies teachers to work in the state.
The board reports to the state Board of Education, and all of its decisions are subject to the approval of the state board.
Though teachers serve on the board, many critics believe the system shuts teachers out of the process because PSTEB can be overruled by a three-fourths vote of the state Board of Education.
Critics advocate for a more independent board with more teachers on it. But others say that would give teachers too much influence, allowing them to write their own licensing requirements.
Glendening supports the creation of an independent 25-member board appointed by the governor with the power to certify teachers. The board would not report to the state, but its makeup would be similar to the current one, with several teachers serving on it.
Sauerbrey opposes any attempt to create an independent board because it would take away the oversight power of the state board.