ANNAPOLIS – The state’s vision for schools in the next decade is ambitious, likely expensive, and centered on classroom teaching.
In it, statewide curriculum flows seamlessly into a coordinated testing program. Every school answers for the progress of every student. Poor and minority students perform just as well as their affluent classmates. Teachers are better trained, and the best teachers and principals work in the most troubled schools. Principals can focus on teaching, not administrative details. And the state finds all the money to pay for its expensive ideas.
The Visionary Panel for Better Schools presented the results of its yearlong study, conducted by its 40-member team, to the Maryland State Board of Education Tuesday. The panel’s recommendations are a master plan for long-term goals and reform.
“This report is profound,” said State School Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick. “It will provide enormous guidance to us.”
Grasmick asked the panel to look at the policy of the past 10 years and map out the next 10.
Policies of the 1990s focused on standards and accountability. Recent studies have ranked Maryland at the top of the nation in those areas. The next step is to bring curriculum and instruction in line, the panel said.
“All our recommendations come down to one,” said panel co-chairman John F. Jennings, director of the Center on Education Policy in Washington, D.C. “We have to focus on the classroom.”
Panel members said their recommendations fit with the state’s other comprehensive reform plan, the so-called Thornton Commission’s school funding proposal.
The plan created by the Commission on Education Finance, Equity and Excellence calls for a $1.1 billion increase in state spending for schools over the next five years. Gov. Parris N. Glendening has said the state can’t afford to begin those reforms this year, but many lawmakers are hopeful that the General Assembly can find at least some money before the budget is finalized.
Glendening’s $22 billion budget was designed to close a projected $1 billion deficit by postponing the last 2 percent of a planned 10 percent tax cut and using up rainy day funds. Although he increased education spending by $161 million, he did not provide any money for Thornton Commission proposals.
The Visionary Panel’s proposal calls for full funding of the Thornton Commission’s recommendations, and would guide how some of that money might be spent.
“This is a complement to the Thornton Commission,” Jennings said. “The state is not only being asked to spend more money, they’re being asked to spend the money well.”
Several board members said the plan could suffer for lack of funding.
“The content is essential,” said board member Karabelle A. L. Pizzigati. “But we can’t do this on the cheap.”
It is not yet clear how much the recommendations will cost to institute. The state will seek input from regional briefings and from the General Assembly, then develop a way to bring the recommendations to fruition. The board will look at the plan again in May, when state lawmakers likely will be finished with the budget.
Putting the plan to work will be an ambitious task, said board member Edward L. Root.
Some recommendations can be carried out locally, some by the state, and some could mean restructuring at several levels, he said.
“The next part is even more difficult. This is not a one-year job,” Root said. “If we can do these in the next several years, Maryland is going to be a lot better off.”
Panel members warned against picking the plan apart or delaying it for lack of funds.
“Not only are there things we must do to improve schools, there are things we must do now,” said Sister Helen Amos, panel chairwoman and executive chairwoman of the Board of Trustees of Mercy Health Services in Baltimore.
The state’s achievement gap needs immediate attention, she said, as the state’s minority population grows at four times the rate of its white population.
“Every day we don’t resolve it is a day we are digging a deeper hole that will cost us more to get out of.”