Maryland is set to seize control of academically 'bankrupt' schools

December 26, 1993|By Gary Gately | Gary Gately,Staff Writer

For the first time in Maryland's history, the state is about to seize control of failing local schools.

The reform of last resort will begin next month when the state school board will target high schools that fall far short of state goals and continue to decline.

Acting on recommendations of the state superintendent, the Board of Education will identify high schools based on dropout and attendance rates and tests in reading, math, writing and citizenship.

The state board approved the "academic bankruptcy" measure last month. The board is now empowered to change principals or other staff, rewrite curricula, order revisions in teaching methods or turn faltering schools over to private operators or universities.

Local systems targeted 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 schools will begin in January 1995.

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

State legislators repeatedly have demanded that school systems make better use of the money allotted to them, particularly by improving their worst schools, before they receive more, Dr. Grasmick noted when the board unanimously approved the takeover measure last month.

Dr. Grasmick said she shares lawmakers' sense of urgency.

"We're in the business of children, and we're in the business of children's futures," she said. "If you truly believe that, you can't allow the status quo to continue."

State funds could be withheld from local school systems that refuse to comply with a state takeover order but local systems would be given 10 days to challenge the move 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 January, and only a small fraction of those schools would face takeover, Dr. Grasmick said.

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.

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

The National School Boards Association also strenuously opposes state takeovers. "They're totally against the democratic principles of government we have for local control of our local schools," said Thomas A. Shannon, the group's executive director.

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