The first in an occasional series of informal reports and ruminations on meetings of the Harford County Board of Education.
The latest school board meeting was about a race, and well, race. It generated interesting discussions, especially from board vice-president, Leonard Wheeler. Dr. Wheeler has been somewhat of a maverick, albeit an unfailingly courteous one. This particular meeting provided a case in point.
A last minute addition to the agenda was a vote on whether the Harford school board would sign a memorandum of understanding to support Maryland’s application for the latest in federal largess, formally known as the Race to the Top (RTTT).
Wheeler cautioned against chasing after money simply because it was being dangled, reasoning that the board should only sign on if the extra money would help students that HCPS was failing to serve.
No one on the school board was happy about the rush to vote: Maryland’s RTTT application is 259 pages full of reform proposals, it was made public last week and the Harford board was under pressure to vote in advance of an April 21 deadline for all local school systems to sign the MOU. Plus, the money’s not all that great.
Race to the Top may offer a $4 billion national prize, but Harford County’s share, which would come out of Maryland’s estimated $150 – $250 million share, is based on a formula that’s not an even distribution among the state’s 24 local school systems.
Harford Superintendent Robert Tomback, who recommended that the board sign the MOU, said the best case scenario for Maryland would bring $1.9 million for Harford, spread out over four years. That’s real money for sure, but it only adds up to about $12.50 per student, per year. After four years, the money dries up.
Wheeler, whose doctorate is in education, took his stand: “Is the investment of resources equal to what we’re going to gain? I don’t think so.” He ended up being a ‘no’ vote.
Other board members reasoned that if they played nice, they would at least have a seat at the table as Maryland continues to tweak the application before it’s submitted to the U.S. Department of Education. Plus, there’s a 90-day opt out provision on the MOU, meaning that if Harford doesn’t like Maryland’s final application, Harford can pull out.
The feds put great stock in universal support for the reforms outlined in a state’s application. So the opt-out provision is a neat way to win over the local school systems needed to boost Maryland’s shot at the money, especially since the opt-out can be exercised up until July, well after the June 1, 2010 due date for applications to arrive in D.C.
It’s a perfect plan, really. As long as the Maryland signatures don’t turn out to be largely written in disappearing ink.
As added insurance, Maryland Schools Superintendent Nancy Grasmick has apparently said she will implement the reforms, some of which were recently codified into law, even if the state doesn’t get a dime from the feds. Translation: resistance is futile.
Nonetheless, Montgomery County Public Schools Superintendent Jerry Weast has signaled that MCPS may not sign the MOU, in an op-ed piece published April 19 in The Baltimore Sun.
Harford School Board Member Robin Rich predicted that other counties wouldn’t sign on and so Maryland wouldn’t end up with the money. Rich also worried about the strings that are always attached to federal funds, but voted a reluctant ‘yes’ anyway. The final vote was 6 to 1 in favor of Grasmick’s plan. Next step: Reviewing the plan.
Another noteworthy discussion involved a presentation on closing the achievement gap for African American males in HCPS. In reading proficiency, the gap is nearly 30% at the high school level.
Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum & Instruction Roger Plunkett shared a thoughtful, task-force presentation including a number of interesting ideas to reduce the gap (i.e. single sex classrooms). But Wheeler, who is African American, silenced the room by seeming to challenge the very premise of gaps measured along racial lines.
Wheeler said that African American achievement was equivalent to that of other students, measured within the same socio-economic status (SES). He added that SES was a very reliable predictor of student outcomes.
Wheeler wasn’t dismissing the need to close achievement gap for African American males; instead he stressed that race, per se, was not the reason for the gap. He thanked Plunkett and his team, and asked them to “take risks” and “challenge assumptions”, later adding “Get it out of the circle.” Not surprising, coming from the school board member whose comments are often outside the box.