School Plan Rates a D-minus

October 10, 1990

When it meets Thursday night, the city school board should reaffirm its commitment to school autonomy, set a deadline on beginning decentralization at 20 Baltimore schools but send the current proposal back to the drawing board. Doing otherwise would be a disservice to the cause of education in Baltimore City.

As it is written, the decentralization plan is too vague and contradictory to succeed. Moreover, it was developed without adequate public participation. As recent comments from community groups have shown, the plan lacks broad support of parents and education activists. This is a fatal shortcoming in any decentralization attempt.

Is the plan a half-measure? Some activists think so.

In last Sunday's Perspective section, Susan Leviton, president of Advocates for Children and Youth Inc. and an associate professor of law at the University of Maryland, dissected the plan and found it hopelessly flawed. In her analysis, its main shortcomings are that:

* The plan does not grant every pilot school freedom over spending, school operations, curriculum, textbooks and teacher hiring.

* The plan does not grant individual schools authority to fire or transfer teachers who are incompetent or unsuitable for their assignments.

* The plan is not specific enough about the penalties for schools which fail to improve students' performance.

* The plan fails to allow individual schools to govern themselves.

Ms. Leviton's critics might argue that in selecting from the many decentralization alternatives, the school board intentionally chose a plan which did not give the pilot schools full autonomy. For purposes of argument, this point has merit, except that emasculated decentralization plans usually have faltered in their early stages.

Over the past two decades, the Baltimore City school system has gone through countless reorganizations. The last one, Superintendent Richard C. Hunter's rearrangement of chairs on the executive deck, was quietly junked earlier this year when J. Edward Andrew Jr. was brought in to run the day-to-day school activities. By and large, he has succeeded in that difficult task.

Considering all the past turbulence, it is important not to lose the current momentum. Decentralization should be tested with a workable pilot program. The existing proposal is weak and doomed to failure -- which may be exactly what its proponents want.

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