Takeover looms for failing schools State to start identifying first targets in January

November 17, 1993|By Gary Gately | Gary Gately,Staff Writer

A tough measure allowing the state to take control of faltering schools and place some of the worst of them in private hands won the unanimous approval of the state school board yesterday.

With little debate, the 12-member State Board of Education adopted the measure, which takes effect in January, when the board will begin identifying high schools that fall far short of state goals and continuously decline.

The state board, acting on recommendations of the superintendent, will target high schools based on dropout and attendance rates and tests in reading, math, writing and citizenship, then notify local school systems.

Local systems will have about 10 weeks to send "school-improvement" plans to the state superintendent, who could accept a plan or reject it and recommend "reconstitution" of a school.

The state takeover identification process for elementary and middle school will begin a year later, in January 1995.

State Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick stressed that the state would resort to taking control of schools as a last resort, and predicted only a handful of high schools would be subjected to the extraordinary move in the first year.

"There is only one reason we would intervene in the operation of a school," Dr. Grasmick said, "and that is to make changes in the school necessary for that school to become a good learning environment for all students. That is our responsibility."

For schools turned over to outside operators -- most likely private companies, universities or a consultant -- the state will contract directly with the operators for up to five years.

But the local boards would foot the bill with local, state and federal money.

"Reconstitution" at other schools could mean ordering local boards to change principals, staff, curriculum or teaching methods.

State funds could be withheld from local school systems that refuse to comply, but local systems would be given 10 days to challenge a takeover in a hearing before the board.

Starting in 1995, elementary and middle schools will be evaluated on how well students perform on attendance and on Criterion Reference Tests.

The tests, given in third, fifth and eighth grades, are intended to measure students' use of what they learn in the classroom.

As with high schools, the state will tell local districts which schools are failing each Jan. 15, and only a small fraction of those schools would face takeover, Dr. Grasmick said.

Approval of the takeover measure comes just days after the 44,000-member Maryland State Teachers Association launched a statewide "Hands off our schools" campaign to defeat it.

Yesterday, the union's president, Karl K. Pence, said the union would fight any plans to place schools in private hands and enlist the support of superintendents, principals, teachers and parents across the state.

"Our goal will be that no school in Maryland will suffer this indignity," he said, predicting that the number of schools placed in private hands would expand rapidly.

"The principle of turning public schools over to private corporations is odious. It's a total misdirection for dealing with the needs of the schools. If there's profit to be made runing those schools, then it should be invested in poorer communities."

The school board gave preliminary approval in July to the takeover proposal, among the toughest nationwide in a drive among educators to step in and reverse the decline of schools or districts beset by poor performance.

About 20 states have adopted measures allowing outside intervention at lagging schools, as have numerous city school districts.

The measure caps a state school reform effort started three years ago when the board called for measurable performance standards and sanctions, including possible state takeover, for schools that fail to improve.

Robert C. Embry Jr., the state board president, called the measure an overdue means of improving schools marked by years of poor performance.

"It's not meant to punish children," he said. "It's meant to reward children by spending the same money in a different way."

In Baltimore, where Minneapolis-based Education Alternatives Inc. began running nine schools last year, Superintendent Walter G. Amprey said that he has no qualms about the state proposal.

"We'll take help where we can get it when it comes to saving kids," he said.

Some city schools appear likely takeover targets.

The dropout rate for the 28 high schools averages 18.5 percent, compared with a statewide average of 5.36 percent, and the city falls well below state standards in almost all categories on state tests.

The Baltimore Teachers Union, the only one in the state not affiliated with the Maryland State Teachers Association, also opposes the takeover measure.

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