WASHINGTON – Maryland schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick told a congressional committee Thursday that there is a better way to address failing schools than President Bush’s proposal for vouchers.
Maryland’s program of reconstituting troubled schools ensures that “no child is left behind,” Grasmick said, whereas vouchers simply allow a few students to flee from those schools.
“Children will still attend a failing school, so I believe we have to fix the failing school,” Grasmick told the House Committee on Education and the Workforce. “The better remedy is totally restructuring the school.”
Voucher plans usually give families money or credits that they can use to help pay for private school tuition if they are dissatisfied with their public school’s performance.
Under Maryland’s plan, schools with consistently low test scores are “reconstituted.” They are first given intensive state assistance and, if they do not improve, they can be turned over to a private contractor to run. Four schools are currently under such management.
While the few committee members who attended the hearing — there were rarely more than five — were supportive, Rep. John Isakson, R-Ga., said vouchers should not be dismissed out of hand. He said vouchers are an incentive for public schools to do better.
“If there’s never any consequence for failing, there will be no incentive to succeed,” Isakson said.
Grasmick was asked to testify with Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, a Republican, and Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., on their states’ education reform initiatives and to reflect on Bush’s proposals.
Maryland is already doing much of what the president has proposed, Grasmick said, including testing students at several levels and holding accountable those schools whose students are falling behind.
Grasmick told committee members at the sparsely attended hearing that the key to assessing student progress is to ensure that schools have “high-quality assessments,” or tests that accurately measure what students are learning.
Bush has proposed testing students every year between third and eighth grades. Maryland already tests students in grades three, four, five, six and eight.
“We have very high-quality tests,” Grasmick said. “For us, this (Bush proposal) will not be a great leap. Once we know which kids aren’t achieving, we have intervention.”
She noted that Maryland got “a perfect A for its standards and accountability and assessment program” in the “Quality Counts” report by Education Week magazine.
Committee members generally lauded Maryland’s initiatives.
“Under Dr. Grasmick’s leadership, Maryland has received national recognition for its work in the area of standards, assessment and accountability,” said committee Chairman John Boehner, R-Ohio.
During the three-hour hearing, Grasmick was questioned on a variety of issues ranging from class-size reduction to high-quality testing to how funding should best be appropriated.
She said reducing class sizes in the earlier grades is one of the most important factors in helping children read, and noted the state’s emphasis on early literature programs, which try to ensure that children can read by the age of 9. She also said there is a continuing need for better training of teachers on the college level.
One of the most troubling aspects of improving education is how it is funded and who gets to appropriate those funds, Grasmick said.
“Most of the work should be done by state educational entities rather than state administrators,” she said. “Because they know where that money really needs to go.”