Back on square one

Glenn McNatt

March 12, 1991|By Glenn McNatt

THE MARYLAND legislature has turned thumbs down on the $800 million tax restructuring recommended by the Linowes commission, at least for this year.

That's bad news for Baltimore and other poor jurisdictions across the state. In particular, the legislature's rejection of Linowes will have immediate consequences for efforts to improve the public schools.

Had the Linowes recommendations been adopted outright (never a likely outcome), Baltimore might have been able to anticipate infusions of state funds to finance long overdue reforms in the system -- a move toward school-based management, restructuring the high school curriculum and teaching methods, better coordination between schools and other city agencies that deliver services to students and their families. Now it looks like Baltimore will have to wait at least another year, possibly longer.

Compounding disappointment at the legislature's failure to provide relief is the fact that the city schools are virtually leaderless. School Supt. Richard C. Hunter will be leaving when his contract expires this summer, and the school board has yet to find a replacement. The deputy administrator hired at Mayor ++ Schmoke's insistence last year to run the system's day-to-day operations also plans to depart soon.

So for all practical purposes the school reform movement is dead in the water for the time being. The great momentum for change that culminated in Kurt Schmoke's election as mayor in 1987 has been allowed to dissipate in the four years since with little tangible result.

With Hunter's departure and city elections in November, the reform process is effectively back to square one. This has left many people in the schools, city government and the business community more frustrated than ever.

At this point, the city basically has three alternatives. It can continue with the status quo and hope for the best regarding Hunter's successor and the legislature's willingness to funnel more money to Baltimore at some future date.

Or it could try to force the issue by taking the state to court over the the glaring disparity between what Maryland's richest and poorest jurisdictions spend on education. Maryland's highest court rejected a suit based on that argument last time around, but since then several states have ruled that wide discrepancies among jurisdictions in school funding formulas violate the law.

Finally, the city could announce its intention to implement across-the-board reforms regardless of whether more state dollars were forthcoming. Deciding to go it alone at least would have the virtue of keeping the initiative in city hands.

The first option is self-evident. It is simply a recipe for more of the same -- at the expense of city school children, who are being cheated of the education to which they are entitled. Over the long term, business as usual seriously threatens Baltimore's future desirability as a place to live and work.

Suing the state over funding disparities promises tangible results if successful, but a court battle also involves risks. The legislature probably would resent seeing its prerogatives usurped and seek to punish the city and any poor district which joined it. Since lawmakers could retaliate in any number of ways, not all of them predictable, gains won in court might soon prove illusory.

Baltimore's best bet might be simply to announce a unilateral commitment to reform and then get on with it using whatever resources were available. In fact, there is already a model for this approach in the Dunbar community experiment in East Baltimore, which is designed to strengthen coordination between elementary and secondary schools and also between the schools and city agencies that deliver services to students and their families.

In many ways, the Dunbar experiment barely scratches the surface of what needs to be done. It does not, for example, address the issue of restructuring how subjects are taught at the secondary school level, in particular changing the "factory model" of education in high schools that chops up the school day into short, arbitrarily discrete subject categories. With nearly half the students who enter ninth grade failing to graduate four years later, rethinking high school teaching methods and

curriculum is arguably the most important item on the reform agenda.

Even given these shortcomings, however, it still makes more sense for Baltimore to take the initiative than to wait for the legislature or the courts to act. At the very least, the Dunbar approach should be expanded systemwide. And just as Dunbar provides a model for better coordination between education and other city services, institutions like Baltimore's School for the Arts could serve as models for restructured classrooms and teaching methods.

In fact, we already know quite well what needs to be done. What the city hasn't had is the kind of leadership capable of turning visions into reality. But the opportunity is there, along with the will to keep pressing forward until progress is made. Maybe this will prove to be the year school reform in Baltimore finally gets off square one.

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