School's Out in Baltimore

December 26, 1991

There are two possible explanations for Mayor Schmoke's insistence on closing Baltimore City public schools for a week in February as a way to make up for a steep cut in state aid:

* He might be incapable of figuring out a better way to trim the school budget, although executives and school officials in surrounding counties have all managed. (They have, for example, imposed unpaid furlough days on teachers on holidays and other times when school is not in session anyway.) If the mayor can't think of a better plan to save money, he should be ashamed.

* The mayor might be cynically using the city's 100,000 students as a way to put pressure on state officials to go easy on budget cuts. If so, he is more likely to provoke anger than sympathy among those who control the state purse. If the mayor can't think of a better way to lobby for state aid, he should be ashamed.

There might be a situation in which reducing the school year, as a one-shot emergency response to a budget crisis, would be defensible. It is better, for example, for students to go to school 175 days with books than to go 180 days (the state-mandated minimum) without books.

But the mayor has failed to make a convincing case -- indeed, he has not attempted to make a case at all -- that this is the best alternative. Mr. Schmoke hasn't shown why other alternatives cannot be pursued. He hasn't presented other budget scenarios for consideration.

Nor has he given anyone reason to believe this is a one-shot response. The budget problems are not temporary, yet the city has not shown it is developing other solutions. While a shortening of the school year is tolerable (although regrettable) as a temporary expedient when other options are exhausted, it is absolutely unacceptable as a regular occurrence. The state's school-reform plan called for a longer school year. While that's not possible without more money (which the state doesn't have), there is no excuse for Baltimore City adopting a shorter school year than the rest of the state.

City students need all the schooling they can get. City parents shouldn't have to scramble for child-care stopgaps in mid-year. And at a time when low attendance has been identified as a serious problem in city schools, no one -- least of all the mayor -- should be giving the impression that classroom time is expendable.

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