Keeping city schools open

January 15, 1992

Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke did the right thing in canceling plans to close city schools for a week in February as a budget-cutting measure. But he deserves faint congratulations at best; he had the opportunity to do the right thing only because he did the wrong thing in the first place.

Other local governments found ways to absorb reductions in state aid -- generally furloughs for employees -- without reducing school time. Schmoke apparently hoped a dramatic action in the city -- in effect, furloughing the students -- would create a groundswell for increasing state support for schools. In rescinding the school closings, he said, "What I am trying to do is overcome an issue that was diverting us from the major issue: school funding."

The financing of Maryland's schools is in serious need of overhaul. As demonstrated once again this month with the release of statewide results on the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills, children in resource-poor systems such as the city's cannot approach the achievement levels of children in wealthy suburbs.

But the mayor's heavy-handed ploy has not advanced the cause of finance reform. Legislators who were not sympathetic before have either remained indifferent or become angered at the mayor's clumsy attempt to put pressure on them. House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr., a man the city needs on its side for any aid package, complained about political posturing. Some legislators were even considering action that would have penalized the city financially for failing to meet the state requirement of 180 school days.

The school-closing-that-wasn't may, over time, help mobilize the constituency for city schools, but the mayor's strategy did more harm than good. One of the most valuable assets of the city school system is what remains of public confidence in them. That confidence had already been seriously eroded through years of under-funding, administrative turmoil and low achievement. But a strong commitment from Mayor Schmoke and the early performance of the new school superintendent, Dr. Walter G. Amprey, was beginning to turn things around.

With a single ill-considered maneuver, Mr. Schmoke got confidence headed downward again. While he could reverse his decision, he cannot erase its effects. Although schools will remain open, parents are skeptical. And chances of a significant amount of new state aid -- microscopic to begin with, given the state's budget problems -- have not improved at all.

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