Strong Unions Help Power Maryland to No. 1 Education Ranking

In 2002, the Maryland General Assembly adopted the Bridge to Excellence in Public Schools Act to phase-in increases to school funding with the goal of providing an equitable, quality education regardless of a student’s zip code or background. At the time, the New York Times called the bill “historic.” After 10 years, it can also be referred to as an investment that has paid off big time.

For the fifth year in a row, Maryland’s public school system has been ranked No. 1 in an annual study by Education Week that examines the nexus of state education policies, school finance, the effect of school climate on student achievement, and other assessment means.

“The focus on supporting quality schools and effective teaching has been instrumental in Maryland’s consistent recognition as a national leader,” says Betty Weller, president of the Maryland State Education Association (MSEA). “I’m very proud of how MSEA’s members have kept the focus on improving student achievement, honing professional practice, and creating safe, supportive schools for all of our children.”

Education Week gave Maryland the nation’s highest overall grade, the only B-plus awarded this year. There were only three Bs earned in the Quality Counts 2013 assessment: by Massachusetts, New York, and Virginia. These four states maintained the same rankings they held in 2012.

“What is striking to me is that in the top states, school employees are empowered through their unions to be strong partners in improving schools and student achievement,” says Weller, who serves as co-chair of the Maryland Council for Educator Effectiveness, an eclectic group that includes educators, legislators, school board members, business leaders and others.

Collaboration between education stakeholders is huge,” Weller says. “In states where you have people who can discuss issues honestly — that is where you see forward movement. In states where you have a closed door policy, it is a disaster.”

All other states and the District of Columbia received grades between B-minus and C-minus. As a whole, the nation received a C-plus overall when graded across the six areas of policy and performance tracked by the report. While there were no Ds or Fs awarded in the “overall state grade” category, lower grades do appear in specific areas such as, “K-12 Achievement,” “Teaching Profession,” “School Finance.”

Maryland scored an A under “Transitions and Alignment,” which tracks state-policy efforts to better coordinate connections between early childhood education and K-12 schooling with policies related to college and workforce readiness. Weller says continued collaboration and commitment between educators, parents, community members, and government officials is key to placing students on a path of increased achievement, success, and national recognition.

“Education should not be a partisan issue,” she says. “It’s foolish. We all have children who attend school. We do our children a disservice by resorting to petty politics.”

In 2010 at NEA’s Representative Assembly, Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley received the America’s Greatest Education Governor Award. The prestigious award is presented each year to a governor who has made major, statewide efforts to improve public education.

But despite the progress in Maryland, says Weller, including being able to claim the nation’s 2006 and 2011 National Teachers of the Year, there are still unmet school funding needs, and achievement gaps can still be narrowed.

“We’re proud and excited, but there remains much work to be done,” Weller added.