Schmoke gets mixed grades on schools

July 31, 1991|By Mark Bomster | Mark Bomster,Evening Sun Staff

Improvement of the Baltimore public schools was to have been the centerpiece of Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's administration, the "top priority" of a city government also wrestling with issues of crime, taxation and economic development.

But, as the Sept. 12 mayoral primary approaches, Schmoke gets mixed grades for his handling of the school system.

The most pointed criticism comes from political opponents who see little improvement in the schools and weak leadership from the mayor.

"If this is what he calls 'top priority,' then I don't know what the word priority is," said former Mayor Clarence Du Burns, a leading Democratic contender for Schmoke's job. "This system is going down the drain, and going down fast."

And William A. Swisher, who is a former state's attorney and one of seven Democrats challenging Schmoke in the primary, said the mayor has failed to reform the school system which is a "a big bureaucratic mess."

"You've got kids who graduate from high school and they can't fill out a job application, you've got kids who can't make change," said Swisher. "It seems to be the consensus from everybody that nothing's worked out."

Schmoke supporters are more positive -- but concede the school system has made slow progress.

"I think he's done well enough to merit my support for his re-election," said Del. Howard P. Rawlings, D-City, vice chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. "He's elevated public education in Baltimore as a city priority."

Yet, in terms of measurable improvements, "that has not happened -- and I don't believe that's going to happen overnight," said Rawlings.

Schmoke came into office pledging to push for increased funding, reduce class sizes and, above all, provide energetic leadership for the school system.

The record today is one of high expectations only partly fulfilled.

On the one hand, the mayor is widely credited with focusing attention on the school system's needs and achievements.

Schmoke has made literacy his personal crusade through the ubiquitous motto, "The City That Reads" and the efforts of the non-profit Baltimore Reads Inc.

He has encouraged partnerships between local businesses and scores of schools throughout the city.

And he has dramatically increased the share of local money going into the city school system, from $136.1 million in the 1988 fiscal year to $182.2 million in fiscal 1992.

But Schmoke's first term was marred by disastrous personnel moves and little measurable change in the quality of education ++ for Baltimore's 108,000 students.

His hand-picked superintendent, Richard C. Hunter, was dumped after alienating parents, civic leaders and, ultimately, Schmoke himself.

His high-profile choice to be the city's first black school board president, Meldon S. Hollis Jr., stepped down from that position under fire after admitting he lied to the press in an attempt to squelch leaks.

And the so-called "objective" measurements of educational quality -- test scores, dropout rates and the like -- are ambiguous.

Student performance in math, language and reading comprehension, as measured by the California Achievement Test, stayed the same or declined slightly for third-, fifth- and eighth-graders between the 1988 and 1990 school years.

But performance on the state's functional tests in math, reading and writing improved between 1988 and 1990, including dramatic jumps in the percentage of students who passed the writing tests.

The annual dropout rate, as calculated by the school administration, has fluctuated in recent years, dropping from 15.8 percent the year Schmoke first took office to 12.6 percent in the most recent year.

School attendance has increased slightly to 86.4 percent in the most recent year from 85.7 percent when Schmoke took office.

Class sizes have been reduced to a maximum of 20 in pre-kindergarten and 25 in kindergarten, fulfilling a 1987 Schmoke campaign promise.

But first- and second-grade classes still have at least 25 students, the third grade averages 32 students, and fourth- and fifth-grade classes average 35.

Meanwhile, school crime jumped 41.8 percent in the last school year, despite a decline in gun-related and other serious crimes.

And average scores on the Scholastic Aptitude Test dropped from a total of 754 in the 1987-88 school year to 744 in 1989-90.

Politicians, civic leaders and parent groups all give Schmoke credit for inspiration -- but voice frustration over school leadership and the pace of reform.

"What we need to see in the next four years are some measures of steady reform," said Carol Reckling, senior leader-organizer for Baltimoreans United for Leadership Development.

Anthony Stewart, former president of the Baltimore Council of PTAs, praised the increase in local funding, but added, "I'm not so sure we've gotten the results at the classroom level. I can't think of any noticeable difference."

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