Friday, January 19, 2007

Spending Education Dollars Wisely

It appears that new Maryland governor Martin O'Malley is proceeding cautiously in putting together his new $30 billion budget, and this includes education spending. According to a story in this morning's Washington Post, while still earmarking a record $400 million for school construction, O'Malley is proposing to defer spending $94.7 million in aid directed to large school districts such as Montgomery and Prince George's County under the state's Geographic Cost of Education Index formula.

The Post may not be correct that O'Malley's budget is "conservative" (as in the story's headline: "O'Malley 'Conservative' in '08 Budget Proposal"). Nevertheless, with a potential looming budget gap exceeding $1 billion only a year away, Governor O'Malley deserves credit for proceeding more cautiously than many expected, including many of his ardent supporters.

With respect to education, O'Malley and his advisors ought to give very serious consideration to proposing plans that require school districts to implement, or at least experiment with, plans that tie teacher pay to merit--in other words, that tie pay to results in the classroom. There is a piece in today's Wall Street Journal [subscription required] by Dan Henninger that reports on the marked improvement in test scores in some Little Rock, Arkansas schools that are experimenting with merit bonuses for teachers tied to classroom performance.

Governor O'Malley has first-hand knowledge concerning the low-achievement rates that plague Baltimore City and some of the state's other poorest school jurisdictions. The new governor is going to be forced to make tough choices as to how best to spend scarce education dollars. He should be bold and propose that Maryland move in the direction of tying teacher pay to performance rather than tenure. Unfortunately, the teachers union reflexively objects. But I suspect that there are many Maryland teachers--and would-be teachers-- who are confident enough in their own skills, who would be supportive of programs that provide incentives in the form of merit bonuses for them to boost classroom performance.