Why Other States Should Be Studying ‘Blueprint for Maryland’s Future’

Hettleman: The blueprint is an ambitious education reform plan that combines school funding increases with a raft of innovative policy initiatives

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Maryland touts the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, its all-encompassing school reform legislation chiefly enacted in 2020, as a “bellwether for the rest of the country.” The blueprint’s main architect, Marc Tucker, then head of the National Center on Education and the Economy and an expert on comparing the performance of U.S. schools to those in high-performing countries, called it “revolutionary.”

Yet, a recent article in The 74 observed that “the blueprint has barely made a splash, garnering little national attention.”

That’s a mistake. The blueprint should be better known and critically examined. Here’s why.

The blueprint is an ambitious reform plan, unparalleled in any state, that combines school funding increases and innovative policy initiatives. Full implementation is not due until 2032, but other states should start studying it now.

How will the blueprint evolve over time? Which policies will prove to work better than others? And will the whole be greater — as the blueprint’s architects claim (I was a member of the commission that drafted it) — than the sum of its parts?

The policy initiatives are worthy of individual consideration. They include:

  •  Mandated pay increases for teachers, and freeing up classroom teachers to spend 40% of their time on training, planning and individual help to students.
  •  Wraparound services for families and children at schools with high concentrations of poverty.
  • Higher career and college readiness standards to be achieved by the end of the 10th grade and post-readiness pathways.
  •  A re-engineered system of career and technology education.
  •  Early childhood programs in addition to all-day prekindergarten for low-income 3- and 4-year olds.
  • And, in the boldest political stroke of all, a new governing body for K-12 public schools, the Blueprint Accountability and Implementation Board, which essentially overrides the authority of the Maryland State Board of Education.

Why is such a ground-breaking, and almost uniformly popular, bundle of policy innovations, which passed both houses of the Maryland legislature by overwhelming margins, not getting more national attention? The answer seems to be that, in the realpolitik of public education, a “revolutionary” plan is likely to scare off other states and school districts. It’s easy for political officials and educators to see and fear the risks that the blueprint entails.

For starters, no one has proof that it will succeed. It doesn’t adhere to any methodology to determine adequate school funding, or rest on evidence that its policy reforms will work as intended. Rather, the center convinced the drafters of the blueprint that the policy initiatives were the pillars of the highest-performing school systems in the world, such as Singapore, Finland and Canada. The result would be a “world-class system,” catapulting Maryland to the top of the class among U.S. states.

Nothing like it has been tried at scale in any U.S. state. The center cited Massachusetts legislation in the 1990s as an exemplar of core principles of the blueprint but conceded later that achievement gaps had not narrowed and “stagnation has set in.” It was also apparent that the pillars in other countries evolved over generations and were steeped in political cultures and supported by social welfare systems far different than the U.S.’

Still, the center asserted that the synergy of the new and traditional components in the blueprint would work for Maryland as they had for the highest-performing countries. Blueprint proponents bought it. Given the desperate crisis in Maryland schools, especially for students who are poor and of color, why not risk a revolutionary experiment. Why not go for broke?

As for the price tag, the public debate in Maryland focused almost exclusively on funding. The cost was described as being a massive $3.8 billion, and moderate Republican governor Larry Hogan vetoed the blueprint (later overridden) as too expensive.

However, the cost is misunderstood. The $3.8 billion is the projected increased funding in 2032 — when full implementation is expected — after annual increments between now and then. This year, additional state funding for the blueprint is only a little over $1 billion. Overall, the $3.8 billion represents, in pre-pandemic projections, an average annual increase of about 2% in state funding for education and less than a 1% increase in state funding for all purposes.

These amounts were consistent with the center’s opinion that the relatively small increases in state funding for the blueprint would be sufficient if the Accountability and Implementation Board rode herd to ensure the money was well spent.   

Others disagree. The ACLU-Md, in a current school finance lawsuit, alleges that the blueprint violates Maryland’s constitutional mandate requiring adequate funding. Many advocacy organizations voice similar concerns, and I have detailed how the blueprint inadequately funds such critical areas as basic school programs and interventions for struggling learners.

So, while the blueprint funding is not nearly as large as perceived, states that pay attention to the blueprint  will have to face politically difficult fiscal revenue issues. In addition, the sheer magnitude of the reforms will severely test the management competence of state and local educators and the touchy limits of local control of schools.

And the mighty role of the Accountability and Implementation Board is almost certain to provoke resistance from the education establishment. Its creation was opposed by the Maryland state board and local boards. Yet, the blueprint will be doomed unless the board has a close working relationship with state and local educators.

The state department of education is key. It has the legal responsibility and staffing, which the board doesn’t have, to do the regulatory and day-to-day operational work with local school systems. While state education officials have publicly embraced the blueprint, it is too soon to tell how they will respond over the long haul to the board’s governance over them.

So, for sure, there are reasons for states to shy away. Still, the blueprint is so innovative and has so much potential that they should study it closely, ask tough questions and learn lessons as it rolls out.

All states and school districts face, as the most recent NAEP results underscore, an existential crisis in public education. Therefore, they are duty bound to raise their own sights for comprehensive reform and embrace bold and, yes, risk-taking action. The blueprint tries to rise to the occasion, and the nation should do the same.

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