Schools in crisis

March 01, 1991

It may be understandable that the Greater Baltimore Committee is at the point of frustration with efforts to improve the city's public schools, but the alternative floated Wednesday by director Robert Keller -- a state takeover of the schools -- is really no solution at all. At bottom, what matters is not so much who runs the schools, but how well they are run. And that, in turn, depends to a very large degree on the resources available to give every child the best education possible.

There is always the possibility, of course, that a state takeover of the city schools would lead to significant increases in funding for education. But the state could just as well increase school funds without actually running the system. And proposals for putting the schools under state supervision seem to fly in the face of the present consensus about how best to seek improvements, which is to give individual schools more control over programs and resources, not less -- in other words, toward decentralization, not greater central control.

And yet the frustration does point to a reality city officials simply cannot ignore. The failure of school reform in Baltimore has been, fundamentally, a failure of leadership. There is just no question that, had the same concerted effort been put into improving the public schools that was put into, say, developing the Inner Harbor or retaining a major league baseball team, Baltimore would not today be confronting the monumental problems in education that have resulted from decades of past neglect. A public school system that could have been one of the region's greatest assets for economic development is instead now one of the principal brakes on future economic growth.

Nearly four years ago Mayor Schmoke pledged to make education the No. 1 priority of his administration. At that time we suggested a straightforward measure by which his efforts might be judged: We urged him to set a goal of cutting the dropout rate in half and doubling the number of city students who went on to college by the end of his first term as mayor.

Today we are no closer to achieving those goals than we were the day Schmoke took the oath of office as mayor of Baltimore. No one is suggesting that the meager results so far have been for lack of trying. Many people, including the mayor, have lent time, energy and inspiration to the task. But when after all is said and done the basic perception remains one of a system mired in bureaucratic inefficiency and academic failure, the pervasive mood of frustration reflects not only despair over the schools' seemingly intractable problems but also very real apprehension about the future of Baltimore itself as a place to live and work.

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