Few states have done as poorly on expanding school choice as Virginia and Maryland, the two states that are home to many of the Beltway players in the school reform movement. Thanks to opposition from suburban districts such as Fairfax County and charter authorizing policies that essentially give traditional districts say over whether charters can be opened in the locales in which they operate (which is akin to allowing McDonald’s decide whether Wendy’s can open restaurants next store) just 58 charters operate in the two states, far fewer than Colorado alone (which is home to 197 of them).

this_is_dropout_nation_logoSo it is good to see the Washington Post call out politicians in both states for their failures to expand choice for children, especially those from poor and minority households who have long been denied high-quality teaching and curricula. It is also good to see that the Old Dominion’s Republicans in control of the state legislature are looking to pass a constitutional amendment creating a state charter school authorizing body to bypass obstruction by traditional districts, and that Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan is proposing to overhaul the Old Line State’s restrictive charter school law.

Yet the need for systemic reform in Virginia and Maryland extend beyond increasing the number of charters. Political leaders in both  states must address the barriers that keep so many children, especially those black and Latino, from attaining the college-preparatory learning they need for lifelong success.

As you know, Dropout Nation touched upon these issues within both states last year in a series of reports on how districts in the Beltway (including Montgomery and Prince George’s counties in Maryland as well as Fairfax and Arlington in Virginia) provided far too few kids with college-preparatory coursework while subjecting them to overuse of harsh traditional school discipline. Yet the issues facing the districts within the D.C. suburbs merely exemplify the problems within both the Maryland and Georgia when it comes to addressing the education crisis within both states.

As Dropout Nation revealed two years ago, Maryland has a history of excluding high numbers of kids from special ed ghettos and English Language Learner students from the National Assessment of Educational Progress. In fact, if those students weren’t excluded from the federal test of academic achievement, it is likely that the Old Line State’s performance on NAEP would have declined significantly — and so would its illusory reputation as home to the nation’s best-performing districts.

Virginia’s own dishonesty has been well-documented. This includes how its proficiency cut scores on state tests are inflated to Lake Woebegone levels. It was also caught setting Plessy v. Ferguson-like proficiency targets that essentially allowed districts to get away with subjecting poor and minority children to low expectations. Only the embarrassment faced by the Obama Administration for blessing the mess as part of the Old Dominion’s No Child waiver forced the state to back off that plan.

Now, as Dropout Nation‘s analysis of college-preparatory data to the U.S. Department of Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection shows, both Virginia and Maryland are doing poorly in helping kids gain the readiness they need for success in the traditional colleges, community colleges, technical schools, and apprenticeships that make up the nation’s higher education system:

dn_va_md_apcoursesFar Too Few Children Are Taking Advanced Placement Courses: When high schoolers take A.P. courses, especially those in math and history, they are gaining critical preparation. Just as importantly, for black and Latino children, A.P. course-taking boosts their chances of graduating high school and moving on to college; as former National Math and Science Initiative President Tom Luce noted a few years ago, when more black kids take A.P., graduation rates increase by 10 percentage points.

Yet just 25 percent of Maryland’s high school students and 21.1 percent of peers in Virginia took A.P. courses in 2011-2012. This means that as more than three-quarters of high schoolers in both states didn’t take A.P. during that school year. Even worse, the levels of A.P. course-taking for black and Latino children, as well as for those considered to have Limited English Proficiency (and thus, are English Language Learners), is even lower than statewide averages. Just 16.9 percent of black high schoolers in Maryland, along with one in five Latino high peers, and 9.1. percent of LEP high schoolers took A.P. courses; meanwhile 51.2 percent of Asian high schoolers and three-in-10 white peers took A.P. that year. The numbers are even worse in Virginia: Only one-in-10 black high school students, 15.6 percent of Latino peers, and 5.5 percent of LEP students took Advanced Placement courses that year, versus 39.6 percent of Asian high school students and 24.5 percent of white counterparts.

dn_va_md_advancedmath_2012Not Enough Kids Take Advanced Math Courses: As you already know, trigonometry is critical for kids who want to get into high-paying blue-collar jobs such as welding, while statistics is an increasingly important skill for those who want to get into marketing and other white-collar careers. These, along with other forms of advanced math, are especially important for kids from poor and minority households to master in order to move out of poverty into the middle class. But in both Virginia and Maryland, few kids are being provided them.

Just 18.4 percent of high school students in Maryland and 17.6 percent of peers in Virginia took advanced math courses in 2011-2012. Essentially, this means that four out of every five high schoolers didn’t take any kind of advanced math that year. The numbers are even worse when you look by subgroup: In Maryland, 13.2 percent of black students, 14.4 percent of Latino peers, and 5.9 percent of LEP students took some form of advanced math; this is versus 29.9 percent of Asian high schoolers and 22.9 percent of white peers. Meanwhile in Virginia, just 11.1 percent of black high schoolers, 12.9 percent of Latino peers, and 5.6 percent of LEP students took advanced math; this is versus 27.9 percent of Asian high school students and one-in-five white peers.

dn_va_md_physics_2012Physics Courses Are Rarely Provided: In an age in which careers in science, technology, engineering, and medicine are the gateways into the middle class, it is important for children to take physics and other science courses. As Harvard University’s Philip M. Sadler and Robert H. Thai (now of the University of Virginia) determined 15 years ago, two years of physics learning (along with calculus instruction) can make the difference between success and failure for high school grads taking physics in college.

But Maryland and Virginia do poorly in providing physics coursework to high school students. Just 9.3 percent of Maryland high-schoolers and 9.5 percent of peers in Virginia took physics in 2011-2012. Put simply, four out of every five high school students in both states didn’t take a physics course that year.

As you can expect, even fewer kids from poor and minority households took physics. In Maryland, a mere 7.5 percent of black students, along with 5.5 percent of Latino peers, and three percent of LEP students took physics that year. This is versus a whopping one-in-two Asian students and a low one-out-of-10 white peers. Things are little better in Virginia: Five-point-five percent of black high school students, 9.9 percent of Latino peers, and 7.6 percent of LEP students took physics; 17.5 percent of Asian students and an amazingly low 9.5 percent of white peers took physics.

algebra_va_md_2012Not Enough Middle-Schoolers Take Algebra 1: The road to college-preparatory learning in high school begins early. One key step: Introductory algebra courses which kids can take to gain the math knowledge and preparation needed to take on higher-level work. But both Virginia and Maryland do poorly in providing Algebra 1.

If you read Dropout Nation‘s report last week on Algebra 1 course-taking, you know that Virginia has made some strong strides in providing kids with the college-prep course. Still, only 29 percent of the Old Dominion’s middle-schoolers took Algebra 1 in 2011-2012. And with only a fifth of black and Latino seventh- and eighth-graders taking Algebra 1 (versus two-fifths of Asian middle-schoolers and 31.6 percent of white peers), poor and minority children are being shortchanged of opportunities for college-prep learning. [Dropout Nation is developing data on LEP middle-schoolers since the Department of Education doesn’t properly break down those numbers.]

As for Maryland? Twenty-nine percent of seventh- and eighth-graders in the Old Line State took Algebra 1 in 2011-2012. So far so good? But this still means that seven-in-10 middle-schoolers never took the course. Maryland also does slightly better when it comes to providing introductory algebra to black and Latino children: Twenty six-point-seven percent of black middle-school students and 25.8 percent of Latino peers take Algebra 1 versus 27.8 percent of white and 22.5 percent of Latino peers. But while there is relative equality in course-taking in the Old Line State, it doesn’t mean that kids are getting what they deserve. The reality is that far too few middle-schoolers in the state are getting college-preparatory math.

Certainly these data points alone don’t provide a full picture of how districts and other school operators in the two states are performing in providing all kids with college-preparatory curricula and high-quality education. But they does illustrate what other data has shown for a while.

The first? That all children in Maryland and Virginia are poorly-served when it comes to being provided the college-preparatory learning that is critical for lifelong economic and social success. This is especially true for black and Latino families in Fairfax County and Montgomery County, both of which continue to rest on their (mostly-undeserved) laurels as bastions of academic excellence. As sociologist Karyn Lacey revealed in Blue-Chip Black, her study of black life in the D.C. suburbs, families have found themselves fighting hard against school leaders and teachers unwilling to help their kids take challenging college prep courses that will help them attain future success.

This is especially shameful when you consider that both states are home to some of the nation’s most-prestigious institutions of higher education, as well as the home bases of the school reform movement’s high-profile players. Particularly for Virginia, the fact that it continues with its low-quality reading and math standards instead of adopting Common Core’s higher-quality standards means that it is assisting districts in denying college-prep learning to kids stuck in district schools.

Secondly: That the restrictions on school choice extend beyond the low number of charters or the lack of vouchers, education saving accounts and tax credit programs. The gatekeeping to college-preparatory courses (most-notably gifted and talented programs) by teachers and guidance counselors, which begin in elementary school, keep far too many kids (especially those black and brown) from getting onto the path to higher ed completion and success in adulthood. Districts even find ways to get around mandates like that of Virginia requiring middle-schoolers to take Algebra 1 by eighth grade.


Community Public Charter School in Albemarle County, Va., is one of the Old Dominion’s few charters. But lack of independent public schools is just one example of restrictions on choice for kids in Virginia and Maryland.

These restrictions on choice, both resulting from the obsolete traditional district model that predominates in both states (along with its penchant for scale over quality), along with the practices of rationing high-quality education (based on the racialist belief that only white middle-class children deserved high-quality education), are damaging to these states at a time when both are slowly becoming majority-minority. In Maryland, white students already account for just 43 percent of K-12 enrollment (as of 2010).

The third reality: That black school leaders in Maryland and Virginia, along with politicians who are supposed to do well by black children, are doing little to help our children gain the knowledge they need for success. This is especially clear when consider that just 6.8 percent of black high-schoolers Baltimore City and 13.6 percent of peers in Prince George’s County — both of which are led by black school leaders and politicians — took A.P. courses in 2011-2012, levels lower than the 23.7 percent for Montgomery County (which has never done all that well by black children, either).

When these facts are considered in light of such antics as Virginia State Sen. Henry Marsh’s help in voting down a proposed school choice law four years ago, the inaction of black leaders on helping black children succeed is just plain unacceptable.

Finally, Maryland and Virginia are continuing a legacy of shortchanging minority children that began long before the advent of American public education. From the move by Maryland’s colonial government in 1664 to enslave all black people brought into its borders, to the Massive Resistance efforts in Virginia after the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, both states condemned generations of black and brown children to the economic and social abyss.

While slavery and segregation are no longer on the books, the inaction (and in some cases, active opposition) of political leaders on systemic reform is damaging another generation of children from minority households. It is high time for both states to make amends for the harm done to generations of children.

Expanding charters and other forms of choice are important steps in advancing systemic reform. For both Maryland and Virginia, it means passing laws allowing for state governments to authorize charters as well as allow for other players (especially the University of Virginia and the University of Maryland) to do so. Given that districts are both unwilling (and in many cases, unable) to do a proper job in authorizing and oversight, it is time to end their ability to do so.

But charter school expansion isn’t enough. Both states must get serious about other reforms. This means giving families the ability to choose an array of college-prep courses from an array of providers (including online outfits as well as charters and those few traditional districts serious about providing high-quality education). Though Maryland Gov. Hogan must deal with other education-related fiscal issues, he should offer up legislation that allows for course choice.

It also means overhauling how children are provided teaching and curricula in the early grades so they can be on the path to success in higher education. Particularly for Virginia, adopting Common Core would go a long way toward improving curricula in districts; the passage of legislation last month by the state senate to ban any attempt to adopt the standards (a move that, unfortunately, wasn’t going to happen anyway) shows an especially egregious lack of seriousness on systemic reform.

Another step lies on the leadership front. Maryland made an important step two years ago when it gave Prince George’s County’s main government and its executive, Rushern Baker, partial control over the operations of the school district. The state should move to hand it full control, as well as place other county governments in charge of district operations; along with Virginia, the Old Line State already gives counties fiscal approval over district budgets and revenue. Both states should also develop new ways to overhaul districts that aren’t making the grade; this includes passing Parent Trigger laws that allow families to take over schools within their own communities, as well as create special districts similar to that of the Recovery School District in New Orleans.

Finally, reformers who live in both states (especially the Beltway crowd) need to stand up and be counted. It is absolutely hypocritical for those in the movement to loudly pushing for systemic reform in other states while staying silent in the communities in which they live. Given their influence and connections within their states, as well as skills on the policy and institution-building fronts, they should be cajoling,and shaming politicians and school leaders in both states.

Maryland and Virginia have lagged on systemic reform for far too long — and to the detriment of our children. This must end. Now.