Schmoke and the schools

March 22, 1995

An election year can do wonders in focusing the mind of a public official. For Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, the state of the city's schools looms as no small issue in the coming campaign. That is his own doing, simply because he had the courage when he first ran for the office to stake the success of his mayoralty on improvements in the quality of Baltimore's public schools.

Although the past year has brought some rays of hope -- scores in many areas have stopped dropping and are showing slight improvements -- there are still daunting problems. In recent months, a federal judge has held the system's superintendent in contempt of court in an 11-year-old lawsuit dealing with the school system's failure to serve students in special education programs and even suggested that he may take control of the schools away from the city, giving it instead to a court-appointed manager. Meanwhile in Annapolis, even city legislators are losing patience with the school system, issuing threats to withhold funds until administrative reforms are implemented.

Those prospects help account for the mayor's decisive actions last week. He announced that he will hand-pick a deputy superintendent to oversee special education and report directly to him, bypassing the schools superintendent, Dr. Walter G. Amprey. This move does not please plaintiffs in the lawsuit, since one of their major complaints has been that special education programs are generally regarded as an afterthought, rather than seen as an integral part of the curriculum. What they would like is a superintendent who is serious about implementing the court decrees, not simply a deputy with a direct line to the mayor.

Even so, the message Mayor Schmoke is sending with this appointment may be more important than the authority given to the deputy. Moreover, the mayor has promised to fix or replace the cumbersome, $6 million computer software that has made it all but impossible for the schools to monitor the progress of students in these programs.

The mayor also announced changes in the city's contract with Education Alternatives Inc., requiring the nine "Tesseract" schools to demonstrate improvements in attendance and achievement, and threatening to cut the contract short unless there are concrete improvements by this summer.

These were decisive actions on Mr. Schmoke's part. Critics -- and campaign opponents -- will of course characterize them as acts of desperation. That's the electoral game. But give this mayor credit: He has made schools a priority, and when progress has seemed elusive, he has made bold moves. Were they also wise and effective moves? That question will be answered by results.

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