When Curtis Valentine speaks to state legislators as executive director of the new education reform advocacy organization MarylandCAN, he sees his role not only to represent the interests of students and parents but those of the entire state.| “Great schools change everything: health care, housing, employment rates, crime,” says Valentine, 33, adding that members of the community who don’t have children in school “are just as vested in education as parents.”
Launched in January, the nonprofit, which is based in Lanham, in Prince George's County, has gotten off to a fast start. It marked its official formation with the publication of “The State of Maryland Public Education 2012,” a report examining available data on school performance in the state, including national assessments, college preparation information, and efforts to implement its Race to the Top [funds and] initiatives. The following month, it offered its first set of School Report Cards, which included performance data and rankings for local schools. Next year, it intends to give letter grades to every public school and district in the state.
The model for MarylandCAN: The Maryland Campaign for Achievement Now, as the group is formally known, has its roots in the Connecticut Coalition for Achievement Now. Founded in 2005, that program led, four years later, to the formation of a national organization, 50CAN, which today provides resources and leadership from its office in New York to a network of state-level advocacy organizations that is just beginning to spread across the country.
MarylandCAN, the fourth state organization to form under 50CAN, grew out of the belief that, while Maryland’s education system has a lot to celebrate, such as its consistently high national rankings and success in the federal Race to the Top grant competitions, the achievement gap that persists for black and Hispanic students needs to be addressed. Its staff of three is headed by Valentine, a New Jersey native and former Prince George's County public middle school teacher who earned a master's in public policy from Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.
Valentine says MarylandCAN has already begun working closely with other local organizations focused on education reform but that it offers several unique elements, including a statewide focus and strong grounding in research and policy. “We have research, we have mobilization of parents, and we have advocacy,” he says. “Our goal is to change public policy with a clear and direct outcome and not to simply draw attention to issues.”
Choices, Accountability, Flexibility
A statement on the MarylandCAN website declares that “getting state policy right can transform the way we educate Maryland’s children. This does not mean trying to write every best practice into state law, but instead advancing three fundamental principles that work together to reward success, punish failure, and raise the quality of everything in between.” Those three principles are listed as greater choices, greater accountability, and greater flexibility.
Among the group’s top legislative issues in this year's spring session of the General Assembly was funding to provide pre-k for every 4-year-old in Maryland whose family wants it. While that would clearly cost taxpayers money, Valentine, whose own daughter is set to attend pre-k for the first time in the fall, argues it would be balanced by the long-term economic benefit of a population that is better equipped to succeed in school, avoid repeating grades, and go on to higher education, “the old adage of pay me now or pay me later,” as he says.
MarylandCAN also spoke to legislators and the public in support of a bill that would create a task force to explore making policies governing the creation and management of charter schools more flexible. In an opinion piece that ran in several area publications, Valentine, whose wife teaches at a Prince George's County public school and whose son attends a magnet Montessori School, wrote: “The effort to expand quality choices while spurring the innovation and flexibility to close our tremendous achievement gap is larger than charter schools alone. It’s about giving all Maryland parents the right to choose what’s best for their own children.”
Another bill actively pursued by MarylandCAN would ensure the right of parents and guardians to attend parent-teacher conferences, Individualized Education Program meetings, and other required meetings for their children without being penalized by their employer.
MarylandCAN points to research showing such parental involvement has important positive effects on children, including higher grades and test scores, better attendance, and better behavior. It argues that encouraging parental involvement offers “significant economic benefits” by leading to more post-secondary degrees, which will be needed to fill the middle- and high-skill positions that are projected to make up the majority of new jobs in Maryland by 2018.
Valentine acknowledges the approach of his organization may seem unorthodox. “Education as an economic issue is something people are not used to hearing. It will take time, and we will continue to have a consistent message that this has an impact for all of Maryland.” BC
MarylandCAN does not have “members” but rather encourages supporters of its mission to follow key issues through its email alerts, website, blog, and other publications; advocate when an issue is being considered by lawmakers; and, if interested, offer financial support.