What We Know About the Prior Investigation into Alleged Fraudulent Graduation Rates

by Genevieve Demos Kelley

Earlier this month, four Prince George’s County board of education members raised hackles when they alleged that graduation rates in the county schools had been inflated through grade fixing and other tactics. The board members — Edward Burroughs, David Murray, Raaheela Ahmed, and Juwan Blocker — asked Governor Larry Hogan to order an investigation into the claims of fraud. Schools CEO Kevin Maxwell and other school officials have denied the allegations, citing an investigation by the Maryland State Department of Education (MSDE) conducted earlier this year that cleared the schools of any wrongdoing.

But State Delegate Jay Walker has publicly questioned whether the MSDE investigation was sufficiently thorough, and on June 25 Governor Larry Hogan sent a letter requesting that the MSDE conduct a “complete, thorough, and exhaustive” investigation into the allegations.

So, why order a second investigation? How thorough was the investigation that was completed earlier this year? A letter sent to the U.S. Department of Education describes the previous MSDE investigation in detail. (Scroll to the end of the post to find the letter in full.) Here is what we know about the investigation:

  1. When did the investigation occur? The investigation was conducted in January 2017, but it was a follow-up on an informal inquiry that had occurred the previous year. In July 2016, Patrick Rooney, deputy director of the United States Department of Education’s (USDE) Office of State Support had sent a letter to Maryland State Superintendent Karen Salmon informing her of an anonymous tip made to his office, alleging that Schools CEO Maxwell was forcing grade changes in order to boost graduation rates. The letter included mention of two high schools in particular. After receiving the letter, Salmon contacted Maxwell about the allegations, and he denied them. Nothing further was done until the MSDE received a phone call in December 2016 from the USDE asking for an update on the investigation.
  2. Who conducted the investigation? The January investigation seems to have been conducted by a single person, Carol Williamson, chief academic officer of the Office of the Deputy for Teaching and Learning, and a former superintendent of Queen Anne’s County Public Schools. The investigation was preceded by a meeting between Williamson and Maxwell on December 12, 2016.
  3. What was the scope of the investigation? The investigation consisted of 1) looking at graduation rate data, 2) meeting with Kevin Maxwell, and 3) interviewing Maxwell and four others. Carol Williamson looked at the graduation data for the county for the past five years and for the two high schools mentioned in the complaint. She discussed the graduation data with Maxwell at the December meeting, and in January she interviewed Maxwell and four other PGCPS employees: an instructional director, a data management and strategy analyst, a special project officer*, and a deputy superintendent.
  4. How were the interviewees selected? How long was each interview? The employees interviewed were referred by Maxwell. It appears that none of the employees interviewed is in a school-based position. Williamson writes, “At the conclusion of our [December] meeting I asked him to identify others with whom I could talk. I asked to talk with the principals’ supervisors for the two high schools, with someone involved in grade collection on transcripts, with someone responsible for school counselors, etc.” Each interview was between 30 and 45 minutes long. According to Williamson, the discussions were thorough, and each person interviewed was “very proud of the work being done in the school system.” (See the letter below for a list of questions asked.)
  5. Who knew — or didn’t know — about the investigation? In a statement issued on June 20, Board Members Burroughs, Ahmed, Murray, and Blocker claimed that they were not informed of the MSDE investigation. They write, “We were absolutely unaware that MSDE had done an investigation on the matter earlier this year. Neither the CEO nor Board leadership informed us of it previous to yesterday evening, when it went out as a blast to school system stakeholders and the media.”

A GCEI Primer: Everything You Need to Know About Maryland’s Geographic Cost of Education Index

by Genevieve Demos Kelley

Much has been made of Governor Hogan’s refusal to release $68 million of the IMG_6467cropGeographic Cost of Education (GCEI) funds. Prince George’s County alone stands to lose more than $20 million in anticipated funding for Fiscal Year 2016. What excatly are GCEI funds, and what does Hogan’s move mean for Maryland schools?

What is the Geographic Cost of Education Index?

The Geographic Cost of Education Index is a supplemental funding program designed to appropriate extra funds to school districts in Maryland with a high cost of educating students. Of Maryland’s 24 local school districts, thirteen have been designated — to varying degrees — as “high cost” school districts and receive GCEI funds. Those thirteen districts serve approximately 80% of Maryland’s public school students. (Read more here.)

Each school district receiving GCEI funds is assigned a predetermined adjustment factor which is multiplied by the per pupil foundation (base) funding amount for that school district, resulting in increased state aid. Prince George’s County’s adjustment is the highest in the state at 0.048 (followed by Baltimore City and Montgomery County), translating into a 4.8% increase in state funding over the foundation amount. (Find the GCEI adjustment, as of 2008, for all school districts in Maryland here.1)

So, is GCEI just a cost-of-living adjustment for school districts with higher home prices and incomes?

No. It’s much more complicated than that. The GCEI’s personnel cost index, which accounts for the bulk of the GCEI adjustment,2 is formulated to reflect the wages needed to attract teachers and other personnel for each district. The cost of attracting personnel is estimated to be higher in school districts that, through factors beyond their control, are deemed to be less desirable. Cost-of-living is a large component here, but the personnel cost index also factors in quality of life and working conditions outside the control of the school district. In theory, for example, a school district with a high cost-of-living and poor working conditions would need to offer higher wages than a school district with a comparable cost-of-living and better working conditions. In other words, tougher school districts need to offer better salaries.

Continue reading