Kalman Hettleman: Will the General Assembly Be Able to Hold MSDE More Accountable?

March 3, 2021

By: Guest Commentary

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As Elizabeth Shwe reported last week in Maryland Matters, an emergency bill introduced by Senate President Bill Ferguson requires a consultant study of the capacity of the Maryland State Department of Education, Maryland Higher Education Commission, the Maryland Department of Labor and other state agencies to carry out the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future.

The bill is a commendable step forward. President Ferguson has long been an outspoken critic of the management failures of MSDE, and House leaders share his frustration. And yet, the bill is unlikely to bring much near-term, much less emergency, relief at this unique moment when MSDE’s weak capacity and lack of transparency endanger COVID-19 school recovery and getting the Blueprint off to a strong start.

The study called for in the bill SB 785 can be sharpened and strengthened in two main ways. The first is to narrow the focus to MSDE alone. MSDE’s shortcomings have been extensively documented, and the Blueprint creates an independent Accountability and Implementation Board (AIB) to direct and oversee MSDE.

On the other hand, the sweeping scope of the study that adds MHEC, the Department of Labor and unnamed “other state agencies” may be itself unmanageable. It is likely to cause substantial delay and be, at best, a “mile wide and inch deep.”

MSDE interacts more or less with many state agencies, but the interactions, with the exception of MHEC, are either peripheral or not problematic. And even in the case of MHEC, the relationship is mainly one of policy, not management capacity and follow-through.

The second way in which the study can be more effective is to expedite its completion. SB 785 calls for the study to be contracted by the AIB in consultation with the Department of Legislative Services. However, the AIB, the first of its kind in the nation, must be created from scratch.

Inevitably, that will take at least a year, causing the timelines in the bill to seem overly optimistic. An alternative is for DLS to undertake the contract immediately, and the AIB, once truly operational, can oversee it.

It is also noteworthy that legislators can take a practical step immediately to hold MSDE more accountable. Such action would recognize the golden opportunity presented by the large amount of federal and state funding that seeks to combat the dire learning loss of our most vulnerable students. In essence, budget language could link appropriations to an Implementation Plan that MSDE must provide within say 60 days of the availability of the funding.

The plan would spell out MSDE’s management capacity to follow through and effectively implement the appropriations. This could apply to earmarked funding, for example, for tutoring, summer school and mental health programs. And it should include actions that MSDE would take to ensure that local school systems employ evidence-based best practices and monitor implementation.

In fairness to MSDE, its dedicated staff are already overburdened. The SB 785 study is basically designed to satisfy questions about whether MSDE has sufficient organizational structures and skilled staff.

Many indications are that it doesn’t. Still, in the current emergency, it can do better and be more transparent. That will build trust in MSDE and optimize the benefits of the General Assembly’s laudable learning loss and Blueprint funding for struggling students.

And one final plug: Bills by Sen. Cheryl Kagan and Del. Alonzo Washington would require Senate confirmation of the appointment of the state superintendent of schools by the state board. They too are a step in the right direction of greater MSDE accountability on the road to school reform.


The writer is a member of the Maryland Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education – the Kirwan Commission, a former Baltimore City school board member, a former deputy mayor of Baltimore and a former Maryland secretary of Human Resources.