The Mayor Still Struggles with the Schools Despite His Active Involvement, Direction, Progress Remain Elusive

December 27, 1992|By MICHAEL A. FLETCHER

Since he assumed office, Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's top priority has been improving the city's beleaguered education system.

But five years into Mr. Schmoke's tenure, public confidence in NTC Baltimore's school system may be at a low point -- oddly, in part, because the mayor insists on playing a prominent role in shaping school policy.

Mostly, mayoral interest in public education is a good thing. It brings money, awareness and private support -- all of which is true in Baltimore.

But Mr. Schmoke's active role in public education in Baltimore has in several cases embarrassed the people charged with running the system, the school board and the superintendent.

Those embarrassments have only fed the perception that the school bureaucracy is an out-of-touch group that seems to work against improving schools. And that creates the damaging impression that Baltimore's schools are in chaos and that nobody has a controlling vision for where the schools should go.

The latest instance was when Mr. Schmoke stepped in to kill a major piece of Superintendent Walter G. Amprey's plan to rezone the public schools. At issue was a plan to eliminate seven combined elementary-middle schools -- a proposal on which Mr. Schmoke had been briefed before school officials made it public.

During the briefing, Mr. Schmoke said he detected several "land mines" in the plan -- chief among them, the proposal to eliminate the so-called K-8 schools, which enjoy strong support because of their histories and relative success. Most of them were established as a result of pressure from communities unhappy with local middle schools.

Generally, the schools attract a good share of students from middle-class homes. And they also tend to be smaller, have fewer disciplinary problems and their students often achieve on a higher level than do students at city middle schools, which generally serve grades 6 through 8.

School officials knew this. But they thought they had a better idea, one which would benefit the system in the long run. Mr. Schmoke knew the story too. But he urged school officials to move ahead anyway, knowing that a public controversy would be inevitable.

Mr. Schmoke explained that while he had misgivings, he wanted school officials to present what they considered their most educationally sound plan. It was the kind of rationale that prompts Mr. Schmoke's critics to deride him as a technocrat who seeks consensus rather than providing leadership.

But when the school system's plan went public and controversy began to flare, Mr. Schmoke made his misgivings about the rezoning plan known. Not only should the K-8 schools not be eliminated, he said, but the model should be expanded to two other schools.

The statement left Dr. Amprey and school planners alone, the object of public contempt.

The rezoning flap comes after several other episodes where the mayor has briefly commandeered the leadership role on education, leaving school officials scrambling in his wake.

There was the time Mr. Schmoke sprung a sneak visit on a school book warehouse to illustrate problems the system has getting books into the hands of students. The mayor also was ahead of school officials in announcing plans for a computer-assisted writing program and in talking about an alternative middle school for disruptive students.

All of this would be immaterial if the result was that schools were improving. But they're not.

Even the most enthusiastic boosters of the system talk about politically bold but limited initiatives: the privatization of nine schools; reshuffling of school administrators.

There has been no real improvement in the school system's abysmal dropout rate, no big increase in the number of public school graduates going on to college or in general school achievement.

The biggest problem, of course, is related to a scarcity of resources, an issue the city cannot solve alone. And much of it is rooted in the deep social problems dogging many of Baltimore's public school children.

But part of the problem also is that the system lacks a controlling vision. The mayor has not provided one himself. And when superintendents assert themselves in controversial ways, it seems that often they find the mayor overruling them.

Michael Fletcher covers Baltimore city government for The Baltimore Sun.

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