State Takeover of City Schools?

March 23, 1991

There's been talk lately about a state takeover of Baltimore City schools. But the objective has not been so much to effect a takeover as it has been to send a message.

The main talkers have been Robert Keller, president of the Greater Baltimore Committee, and a group of city delegates who introduced a state takeover measure in the General Assembly.

Mr. Keller told the State Board of Education last month that if education in Baltimore doesn't improve, the business community may have to start pushing for "dramatic alternatives." His message was aimed at Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, and he was trying to say that the business community is unhappy with the slow pace of education reform.

The city delegates were directing their message at their suburban and rural assembly colleagues. If the state does not provide more help for city schools soon, they seemed to be saying, it may find itself involved in the much more expensive proposition of a state-run city school system.

Judged as messages, the takeover talk is fine; the pace of education reform in Baltimore does need to be quickened, and the city schools do need more state resources. As a serious policy proposal, though, it's premature.

Nine states have enacted "educational bankruptcy" laws, allowing the state to step in when local schools fail to meet standards -- but only as a last resort after other efforts have failed.

If a school or school district cannot provide an adequate education to its students, the state should get involved. Education, constitutionally, is the responsibility of the state, although delegated to local school boards. No child should be denied a basic education because of poor management or lack of resources at the local level.

But a takeover needs to be based on clear and established procedure, not somebody's feeling that things aren't going well. The Sondheim Commission, which studied ways of improving education in Maryland, recommended the state set standards, test compliance, provide help where needed and, if necessary, step in where local officials fail.

State Superintendent Joseph L. Shilling and the State Board of Education are well on the way to putting the Sondheim recommendations into action. They have established new tests and begun issuing "report cards" on compliance with standards. Mr. Shilling's department has a committee studying "school review" -- how to deal with schools that do not meet standards -- with a report to the board likely by early summer.

This is the way it should be. The board needs to finish the job of establishing standards and developing a system of helping troubled schools. Then -- and only then -- would serious talk of state takeovers be in order.

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