Hope for City Schools

October 13, 1990

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke has shown again that he ultimately runs the city school system. Through a couple of telephone calls he gave orders about the long-awaited decentralization experiment. Predictably, the school board did exactly what hizzoner wanted: it approved the experiment, set a deadline but sent the actual plan back to the staff for reworking.

This is the outcome we prefer. The alternative would have been passage of a vague and contradictory decentralization plan. Instead of a definitive plan of four permitted decentralization models, the road now seems clear for the selection of 20 schools which can propose whatever type of "school-based management" they want. Presumably, the reworked decentralization plan will be worded broadly enough to allow experimentation with almost anything during the next three years. Let a hundred flowers bloom, let a thousand schools contend!

Will this be good for the city's troubled schools?

It is difficult to see how things could be worse than they are now with the central administration dictating every move the schools take. If the schools selected for decentralization have a genuine understanding of what they want to achieve and if parents, educators and pupils support these goals, rapid strides could be made in improving the quality of education being delivered to kids. However, if the pilot schools are not selected with care, failure will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The school board ought to follow the procedure set down for government building competitions: make all the proposals public so that interested individuals, organizations and the media can scrutinize and compare them. This does not have to be an elaborate process as long as the proposals are available for a reasonable period of time during office hours at North Avenue headquarters. Anyone who wants to see them should be given a chance to do so. Unless the selection is done in this spirit, the school system is certain to experience all the fears, complaints and suspicions that were expressed by community organizations during the summer and fall.

This exercise underscores the ineptness of the Baltimore school system in its dealing with the public. No wonder it has trouble with kids. Equally distressing is that neither the school board nor the education advocacy groups have any central vision or consensus about school reform in the city. The decentralization project will work only if there is enough leadership to muster understanding and support for this welcome experiment.

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