Wednesday, August 5, 2020
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Should we abolish state education departments?

A candidate for US senator from Maryland responds to an editorial in the Baltimore Sun, saying the Maryland State Department of Education, being a highly politicized agency, should be abolished.

To whom would students appeal if they are punished unfairly by local boards of education?

“While it is true we don’t need the state school board’s choice for state superintendent to be subject to confirmation by the Senate, what we do need is education innovation,” writes Democratic candidate Ralph Jaffe of Baltimore. “For starters, abolish the Maryland State Department of Education. It is highly politicized and a waste of taxpayers’ money.”

He’s referring to a recent movement in the Maryland General Assembly, a bill that never had a chance, that would have allowed the state Senate to veto the choice made by the Maryland State Board of Education for a new state superintendent.

In place of the state education department, Mr Jaffe would propose having each school district in the state make decisions independently of other districts. In Maryland, there are 24 public school districts: each county and then Baltimore City.

He believes each local school district wouldn’t spin statistics in a way that suits them and would truly have the best interest of students in each local school district at heart.

Besides, no matter how the state education department spins the statistics, he says, we still wouldn’t have 99 percent of students in 12th grade reading at a 12th-grade level. And even if we did, there would still be 1 percent of the students in Maryland’s 12th-grade classrooms who weren’t reading at a 12th-grade level.


By way of full disclosure, I have to point out that I work for the Maryland State Department of Education, but I write here on my own and don’t pretend to represent (or even know) what our state board thinks about this matter.

Mr Jaffe’s suggestion would create an immediate situation where some school districts were true innovators and others were unable to innovate. This is our experience with the No Child Left Behind law, which allowed states like Louisiana and Mississippi to lower the bar and produce high school graduates who were unprepared for either college or the workforce while other states, like Massachusetts, New York, and New Jersey, had a better track record for having meaningful high school diplomas.

Centralizing operations probably cuts costs. How would it be if each school district had to negotiate an individual contract with vendors who supply standardized tests that are part of a federal law Mr Jaffe will swear to uphold, should he be elected senator? Some states have over a thousand school districts. Illinois has more than 850.

News organizations would be completely unable to keep up with checking output from each local school district. For my recent coverage of a tax referendum in Morton, Illinois, I had to trust information that was printed in a local newspaper with a substantial circulation. Unfortunately, the paper had printed an error, and that caused a firestorm when I repeated it. I was able to issue a correction, but with information coming from so many different sources under Mr Jaffe’s plan, no one would be able to keep up with all the garbage information being thrown at the people.

It’s also logical and rooted in history to expect each individual school district to exhibit worse behavior than the state departments around the country when it comes to spinning information. They even censor information in their own student newspapers, suppressing what should be protected speech—again, I remind Mr Jaffe of the First Amendment he would swear an oath to uphold—if any story paints the school or a school official in an unflattering light.

History also tells us school districts have a widely varying record when it comes to sharing information with the public. Open meetings laws and information requests are challenged often across the country. Just a few years ago, Baltimore County’s own board of education issued an audit report, saying “the district doesn’t always make the best use of resources, and … its community and public relations efforts are not adequate or proactive.”

The school district in Howard County, Maryland, may be investigated for mishandling public information requests. “House Bill 1105 is a strong message from people and delegates that we’re concerned that our Board of Education and school system have not been open and transparent in conducting the business of educating our children,” the Baltimore Sun quoted a parent and school board candidate as saying.

Are we to clog our courts with these requests in order to make them right, or is a ruling better left to a state board? And what of appeals of disciplinary action taken against students by a local superintendent who has an agenda of ridding schools of stupid students so his scores look better? Each of these cases would have to be challenged in court without a state authority to pass judgment on local boards.

The removal of an objective outside agency, such as the Office of Civil Rights at the US Education Department or the Policy and Accountability Branch within the Division of Special Education at the MSDE, would tend to have a negative effect when it comes to ensuring that all students receive equal educational opportunities.

(As a side note, Mr Jaffe’s reference to students reading at “grade level” misses the point entirely. The term “grade level” means the median of all students in that grade. The 12th-grade reading level, then, is the level of achievement that 50 percent of students are above and 50 percent of students are below. That’s the definition of “grade level,” as I explained here.)

(In addition, I have no comment on the recent death of the bill that would have given the state Senate veto authority over the state board’s selection of a state superintendent. My opinion is moot anyway, but in this case, the bill is dead. I do, however, acknowledge that the state superintendent’s position is highly politicized and very far removed from any classroom.)

Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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