WASHINGTON – Maryland educators and officials are trying to sort out the implications of a sweeping new federal school reform that could boost federal funding to the state by almost 17 percent, but force changes in state education policies.
Maryland will likely have to fine-tune its statewide student-testing program and some districts could be forced to allow school choice for students in troubled schools. But while details are still being worked out by bureaucrats, state officials this week were cautiously optimistic.
“I’m very enthusiastic. It’s the right thing to do, but that doesn’t mean that Maryland doesn’t have work to do in order to be compliant,” Maryland Schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick said Wednesday.
Grasmick was in Washington with other educators, students and lawmakers to celebrate with President Bush, who signed the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 on Tuesday.
The bill increases federal education spending by $8 billion this year, to $26.5 billion, and gives states more flexibility in how some of that money is spent. In return, states will be required to test every student in grades 3 through 8 annually in reading and math, to offer expanded school choice to students in failing schools and demonstrate improved school performance within 12 years.
For Maryland, the new law could raise federal education funding by $92 million to $642.6 million in 2002, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Title I funding, which goes to help poor schools or students, could increase by about 25 percent, to more than $176 million.
But that money depends on the state’s compliance with stricter accountability standards — like the annual testing of all students.
The state’s current test, the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program, does not test children at every grade level that the new law requires, and it is designed to assess schoolwide rather than individual student performance. That means it will have to be tweaked, officials said.
“We were poised to look at this, anyway,” said Assistant State Superintendent Ron Peiffer, adding that Maryland has the advantage of “reworking an assessment system, versus reworking from scratch.”
“We’re already number one in standards and accountability,” Peiffer said. “For us, the job in 2002 is to go back and look at what we’ve done, and what we need to do to be compliant with federal law.”
How much those changes might cost the state is unclear.
“The question is going to be, are they going to put the financial burden of this on the local jurisdictions?” said Wanda Hurt, vice president of legislation for the Maryland Parent-Teacher Association.
Grasmick said that if federal funds for the changes do not cover all the costs, the state may be able to make up the difference by shifting money from other areas that the federal government will now be paying for under the act.
Hurt is also concerned about the expansion of school choice for students. The act requires that local districts offer students in failing schools the option of transferring to better public schools in their district. School districts must also use at least 5 percent of their Title I funds to cover the costs of transporting those students to their chosen schools.
“I understand why parents want to transfer their children out, because they’re looking out for their child’s education,” Hurt said. “But oftentimes, those are the very parents you need in [a troubled] school. They’re they ones who will fight for better education. . . There has to be a better solution.”
She said she would not oppose the policy, however, as long as transfers are restricted to public schools and private school vouchers are not involved.
Jim Dryden, executive director of the Maryland Association of Elementary School Principals, echoed Hurt’s reluctant endorsement.
“As long as taxpayer money is only going to the public schools, I don’t believe it’s a real problem,” Dryden said.
Providing school choice for Title I students is nothing new, but school districts had been allowed to block transfers in the past if local law prohibited it or if the transfer would have resulted in an overcrowded school. Under the new law, only a state law prohibiting school choice would exempt localities, a U.S. Education Department official said.
Grasmick was not concerned Wednesday with the choice element, calling it just another tool to improve the state’s schools.
“We have a very strong system already in Maryland, but this infusion of emphasis and resources are going to help us look at how to make it even stronger,” she said.