he only Board of Education race this year in which there is no incumbent candidate is also the most fiercely contested. Valerie Ervin and Sheldon Fishman have traded barbs over gifted and talented education and other issues in the race to replace District 4 Board member Kermit Burnett.
Ervin, of Silver Spring is the confidential aide, or chief of staff, to Councilmember George Leventhal (D-at large) and a former PTSA president. Fishman, also a Silver Spring resident, is an Internet applications specialist at a Washington law firm and a nearly 20-year veteran of Montgomery County PTAs.
The candidates differ on a wide range of issues but have had a particularly contentious public dialogue over ability grouping in Montgomery County schools.
“Flexible grouping by ability is part of the solution, not part of the problem,” Fishman said. “I think we should not eliminate gifted and talented identification. We should do essentially the opposite. We should be expanding the identification of kids that can do high-level things,” and also pay greater attention to students who need remediation in certain areas, he said.
Fishman says that Ervin opposes grouping. He has pointed repeatedly to a February 2002 document put out by the Montgomery County Education Forum, which Ervin chaired, that said that “ability grouping policies and practices are largely responsible for educational disparities” and recommended that the system “eliminate ‘GT’ designation.”
“The policies that Valerie’s group, the group that she chaired, has been advocating are moving us in the wrong direction, the opposite of where we need to go,” Fishman said.
“I can’t even believe how twisted it got,” Ervin said of the document. She said the paper grew out of “study sessions” by concerned parents who wanted to share ideas about the achievement gap and eventually formed a committee so write down some of those ideas.
“I did not write the document, which is what my opponent keeps telling people,” she said. “It was written by a committee of really well meaning people who said, ‘Here’s where we’re coming from on this, lets have a dialogue about it.’ …Then not only did it get ratcheted up, but then it got twisted around into saying I’m anti GT when I’ve been working with the GT office all along.”
Ervin says she supports gifted and talented education. “The expectation from my opponent and his folks is that I am single handedly going to do something horrible to change or to take away something from kids who have GT designation and it couldn’t be further from the truth,” she said and the School Board should continue to move towards opening more highly gifted centers. But locking students into ability tracks is harmful, she said.
“The whole point about kids are going to come in to the school system performing at different levels is absolutely where the discussion should start,” Ervin said. “What grouping practices have done in the past is they have created static, non-moving placement for kids, who maybe started at one place but were never able to sort of move up or out.”
Both candidate have focused their campaigns on closing the achievement gap. Fishman says that No Child Left Behind and rigid state standards have driven the school system towards one-size-fits-all education and that the system needs to become more flexible and track progress individually and by class rather than simply using fixed grade level tests. A resounding theme of his campaign is that “a student should make at least a year’s worth of progress in a year’s worth of education” rather than simply being measured by rigid, grade-level tests.
Ervin says that her “vision is coming from the same vision the school system has already got underway” but that the system needs to build upwards from the success of the County’s K-2 program. “There’s no sense in them going backward once that kids gets to the third grade. So I’m very concerned about what’s going to happen between 3rd grade through 8th grade.” And that will take steady effort. “To turn the Titanic on a dime—that’s not going to happen. It’s going to be incremental progress,” she said.
Fishman has also advocated having an independent inspector general for the schools, a position he said that would me forced to pay for itself with savings after being created with a fixed amount of seed money, and greater transparency on board actions by posting agendas and notes on the web at least 30 days in advance of meetings.
Ervin pointed to greater equity in allocations and stronger pressure on the state for funding as additional objectives.
BOTH CANDIDATES OPPOSE surplusing school land. Fishman said that the school board should be more appreciative of the prescience of its predecessors who bought up undeveloped land for future school sites. “Now we need to step to bat and figure out a way to leave the inventory of land for our successors in better shape, or certainly no worse, than we inherited. And selling surplus land is not the right direction,” he said.
He added, “We’re going to need both Kendale and Seven Locks.”
“When you look at the fact that there’s hardly any land left for the school system to build new schools on, there is no way that you can be reckless about giving up property, and it’s becoming a serious concern,” Ervin said.
Speaking about capital improvements she reiterated a theme of her campaign: “[A lobbying strategy] is the only way we’re going to get this done. The squeaky wheel really does get the grease.”
The issue that unifies Ervin and Fishman seems to be a desire to change the spirit of the Board of Education to be more open and inclusive.
Ervin said she decided to run four years ago when eight math teachers were fired from Silver Spring International Middle School. “I was one of the parents who tried to contact members of the board of education to come out and meet with us and they refused. Nobody ever returned a phone call, nobody ever returned an email, parents felt like we were totally disengaged from the whole process. It was at that point that I started saying to myself, ‘Who are these people on the board of education and who should they be responding to?’” she said.
“Dr. Weast and the school board has done a number of excellent things. .. [But] in terms of changing the tone I don’t think they’ve made much progress. … They have not done very much at all to improve the tone from an adversarial relationship to a partnership. And I will push hard for that,” said Fishman.
Ultimately, voters will have to decide whether they think a political insider or a political outsider will be the best.
“Valerie is an employee of the County Council and seeking a seat on the school board. I see both advantages and disadvantages to that and it’s up to the voters to decide what they see,” Fishman said.
“What this position has given me that my opponent doesn’t have is a full understanding of policy and how things get done… so I can really hit the ground running,” Ervin said. “Of course you can spin it both ways.”
Fishman pointed out that he has no professional dealings with MCPS and that though his wife and daughter are both teachers, neither of them are in the MCPS system. “If somebody asks about, well what are Sheldon’s conflicts of interest or potential conflicts, there are none,” he said.