Maryland State School Superintendent Mohammed Choudhury — a self-described data geek — arrived from Texas 18 months ago with a plan in his back pocket to redesign an essential formula for how the state calculates levels of family poverty.

Now the state education department has refined that Texas plan into a model for Maryland to target money more precisely for schools with the neediest children.

The new system was introduced as a bill in the legislature and is one of several legislative initiatives coming out of the education department this year that show Choudhury’s ambition to be a more activist leader than recent superintendents.

Its name is the Neighborhood Tier System, and those who have delved into it around the state say they think they like it, but that it is so dense and complicated it will take at least another year before legislators can wrap their brains around how it works and decide whether to pass it. The price tag for it hasn’t been calculated, but it could be between $380 and $590 million annually, the education department estimates, on top of the $7.5 billion the state spends on public schools.

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The system would focus resources more precisely on students living in areas of concentrated poverty and would give more money to the least wealthy areas of the state, such as the Eastern Shore’s rural Caroline, Dorchester and Somerset counties, along with Baltimore City, which stands to gain as much as $127 million. Use of the tier system would not reduce funding for any school system; all schools would get more.

But the Neighborhood Tier System is up against a different method for quantifying poverty the state is trying out this year that uses enrollment data from Medicaid, the federal-state health program for people with low incomes. The use of Medicaid data has helped boost funding in Prince George’s and Montgomery counties, a politically powerful region of the state.

The chosen method will determine which schools have the money to hire more teachers or tutors, buy more computers, stock food pantries, or set up other resources for struggling and disadvantaged students.

A greater presence in Annapolis

Choudhury was attracted to the job of Maryland’s top education official in part because the state seemed willing to address public schools funding in a way he thought would transform education. In 2020, the state passed the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, a sweeping new law that aims to make the state’s public schools competitive with the best in the nation. He saw ways to use the ideas — including the tier system he had tried in Texas — in Maryland.

“I was excited coming into the role that they had foresight to think along those lines, particularly given my prior work in my old stomping ground,” Choudhury said.

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He’s already seen by educators as a smart, intense, ambitious — and blunt — advocate for the state’s public school children, particularly for those students who have the least access to the best schools.

He is also backing a bill he authored to create dual-language schools as well as legislation to attack the teacher shortage.

“It can’t be understated that we have a superintendent with a vision that is very clear about talking about inequities, and I think that is so new to Maryland,” said Shamoyia Gardiner, executive director of Strong Schools Maryland, a nonprofit that is monitoring the implementation of the Blueprint.

He’s been traveling to the state’s capital far more often than the last several state superintendents. Not since Nancy Grasmick — who retired in 2011 after two decades as superintendent — has the state’s top education official been so eager to show up in Annapolis. “It felt truly that the department’s leadership was not being taken seriously by leadership in Annapolis,” Choudhury said, adding that he wants to “regain that trust and respect.”

Choudhury is pushing the tier system because the legislature asked the Maryland State Department of Education to put together a better way to count the levels of poverty in schools. In October, the department gave a report on the Neighborhood Tier System to the Accountability and Implementation Board overseeing the Blueprint.

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If adopted by the legislature, the system would do away with the age-old requirement that families fill out forms to get their children a free or reduced-price lunch. In its place would be a more precise tool that uses census tract data — including percentages of home ownership, income and adult education levels — to decide the relative wealth or poverty of every neighborhood in the state.

Every census tract — a geographic area with an average of 4,000 people living in it — would be put into one of five tiers. Each year, the poverty level of every school would be calculated by looking at the census tract data for every student. The education department has done those calculations for current students to see what the effect would be.

The research done by the education department under Choudhury was extraordinary work, said Baltimore City schools Chief of Staff Alison Perkins-Cohen. Using the tiered system “would be a transformational in how we count poverty. ... It is top notch research. What it shows you is that the breadth and depth of poverty is entirely different” than is currently seen in our current poverty counting system, Perkins-Cohen said.

We have been using blunt instruments, advocates argue, that do not truly reflect the differences between schools.

For instance, the Mount Washington School and Highlandtown Elementary/Middle School in the city have the same proportion of economically disadvantaged students using the old formulas for family income. But using the tier system, the differences in the students in those schools come into sharper focus.

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Three quarters of Highlandtown students are classified as living in the highest levels of poverty, while only 18% of Mount Washington’s are. The two schools have widely varying percentages of students coming from high-income neighborhoods, 5% for Highlandtown and 40% in Mt. Washington.

Because academic achievement is closely correlated with the wealth of the student’s family, the state believes giving more money to schools with high numbers of children coming from areas of concentrated of poverty will even the playing field for those students. So instead of Mount Washington and Highlandtown getting roughly the same amount of state aid, Highlandtown would get more.

Measuring poverty

This year, Maryland decided to use Medicaid enrollment to count poverty instead of relying on the collection of forms or data from other sources. The state can use the Medicaid rolls to identify families with public school students beyond a certain financial threshold. The new poverty count identified 110,000 more students, or about half of the enrollment in the state’s public schools. Most of those newly identified students live in rural and suburban counties.

Because more students are identified as poor with the Medicaid-based count, Maryland would have to come up with far more money to fund education over the next decade than lawmakers had expected. The expense could decline, however, as the government begins later this year to clean the Medicaid rolls of people who are no longer qualified, which hasn’t been done since 2019.

The only school system that does not get a funding increase from the Medicaid-based count is Baltimore’s.

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“Policymakers have responsibility to question any poverty methodology that omits Baltimore City, as the city is the epicenter of concentrated poverty and where the majority of students of poverty live,” Perkins-Cohen said.

Maryland’s school superintendents support the Neighborhood Tier system for calculating poverty and will testify in support of the bill. “It is a rising tide for everyone. I don’t see a downside to it,” said Mary Pat Fannon, executive director of the Public School Superintendents’ Association of Maryland.

Gov. Wes Moore’s administration has yet to take a stance on the bill. “The administration is still digging into it and understanding it,” said Eric Luedtke, Moore’s chief legislative officer, but he added that he believes it is “more reflective of the reality on the ground” and that the administration is committed to getting the city and some rural counties, like Somerset, more funding.

Tackling the teacher shortage and language immersion

Choudhury is also backing a Moore administration bill aimed at reducing the teacher shortage, a serious problem across the state that has only grown worse since the pandemic. That legislation has a number of disparate provisions, including stipends for student teachers and scholarships for students who want to teach in the state.

The Educator Shortage Act would provide a $20,000 a year stipend for students while they student teach. Luedtke said the bill aims to encourage students to become teachers by providing more support while they are getting their degrees. The bill would be most helpful to low-income students who may not have the support of parents who can give them a car or pay their tuition while they are student teaching in a public school classroom.

“We do this in other professions, such as medical school residents,” said Cheryl Bost, president of the Maryland State Education Association, who supports the bill.

Because Maryland colleges are not graduating enough teachers each year to fill the teaching vacancies in public schools in the state, the bill would offer easier paths for teachers to get licenses and degrees. Early childhood education teachers who aren’t now certified could get credit for their previous work experience in getting their degrees.

The bill hopes to incentivize students to come to Maryland from out of state by expanding a program that gives them full scholarships to universities if they agree to teach in Maryland. For every year of free tuition, the student would be required to teach for two years in the state. Bost said the existing scholarship “is underutilized because there are so many barriers to qualify for the scholarship.”

Choudhury also drafted the language for a bill sponsored by Del. Robbyn T. Lewis that would provide $10 million in seed money annually to create dual-language immersion programs, either as whole schools or within an existing school.

Lewis said the approach is far different from bilingual education programs that only help children whose first language isn’t English to master English.

Dual-language immersion programs or schools, she said, can be a powerful way to teach children because it gives them fluency in English and another language.

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