WASHINGTON – The presidential candidates cannot stop talking up their platforms for education. But experts said that when it comes to education in Maryland, it will not really matter who actually gets to sit in the Oval Office.
“(No matter) who gets in 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, we wouldn’t notice much of a difference in Annapolis,” said Denis Doyle, chief academic officer for SchoolNet, a web-based school services firm.
Many of Democratic nominee Al Gore’s proposals, like reconstitution of failing schools and teacher incentives, reflect what is already being done in Maryland. And while GOP nominee George W. Bush’s plan differs in some ways from Gore’s, the federal government would not likely get too involved in local school systems, said a spokesman for the state Department of Education.
Even at that, Doyle said, “90 percent of their programs tend to overlap.”
What both Bush and Gore focus most on is school accountability. Both propose testing students to identify failing schools. They differ in how they would deal with failing schools.
Bush, who proposes testing students every year, would give failing schools three years to improve. If they do not, he would take away a percentage of funding and give parents vouchers of about $1,500 so they could send their children to private schools if they wished.
Ellen Sauerbrey, chairwoman of the Maryland for Bush campaign, said that plan gives parents more options and “put pressure on schools like in Baltimore City, where a large percentage of students drop out and a horrifying number of them can’t read.”
Gore is adamantly opposed to vouchers. He would deal with failing schools through reconstitution, a process already at work in Maryland.
Under Gore’s plan, once failing schools are identified they would have two years to turn things around. If they did not, he would shut down the failing schools and reopen them with an experienced team of teachers and administrators.
Maryland schools spokesman Neil Greenberger said that in February, the state reconstituted three elementary schools in Baltimore City — Gilmor, Montebello and Furman L. Templeton — under the direction of Edison Schools Inc. He said the schools have already seen progress under their new private managers.
“In the first two months, everyone was ecstatic, the image was better, discipline was better. The facility and atmosphere, comparable to what they were before, are amazing,” Greenberger said, adding that Maryland could be a model for Gore’s reconstitution plan if he is elected.
Greenberger said resconstitution is something to “keep around.” But Sauerbrey said it is not nearly as effective as offering parents the option of other schools. She said there are many other schools that deserve to be reconstituted in Maryland, but that state officials have been slow to act.
“It sounds good on paper, but the will to make it happen is a real hindrance. How many schools have been reconstituted?” Sauerbrey asked. “Children in failing schools are held captive.”
Pat Foerster, president of the Maryland State Teachers Association, said she is not completely happy with either idea, but “between the two” she leans toward Gore’s plan.
Foerster said vouchers take money away from public schools to send a few children to private schools, when “we have a responsibility to all children.” She questioned the benefit of telling a “school that has been underfunded for all these years, now we’re going to underfund it even more.”
But if Bush is elected, Greenberger said, vouchers would not likely damage Maryland’s “strong” public school system. He added that the state has performed well on national standards that would be used to determine failing and successful schools.
Doyle agreed that if vouchers do appear in Maryland, it would not be “a big deal.”
“Let’s assume Maryland moved to create the voucher plan. The effects would not be very big. Vouchers would not detract from public schools,” Doyle said. If there is any cutback on public school spending, he said, it would be tiny.
Greenberger said neither candidate’s program should be seen as a threat to state schools.
“In the end no matter what campaign promises are made, people in the federal government don’t want to get into the day-to-day management of state or local school systems,” he said.