From reconstitution to reform Fixing city education: Long list of failed schools adds urgency to state-city partnership.

January 25, 1996

FROM THE beginning of Maryland's school reform effort, it has been clear that the key to success would be to set high standards and hold everyone accountable for meeting those standards. Failure would bring consequences.

This year, those consequences have mushroomed in Baltimore City, where 35 schools have been targeted for reconstitution, on top of five other schools named over the previous two years. These are schools in which test performances are not only distant from state standards but have declined from the previous year. In some of these schools, not one child meets the state standard in any subject.

The number of schools on this year's list may well come as a blow to the city, but it shouldn't come as a surprise. School officials have known the statistics on test performance, attendance and high school dropout rates -- all of which are considered in drawing up the list of schools for reconstitution.

Baltimore education officials are quick to seize on reconstitution as leverage for more money for the city system. However, it has become abundantly clear that increased amounts of state aid will come only in exchange for more accountability. Indeed, the inability of the Amprey bureaucracy to properly account for the funds it already receives is now a growing concern for legislators. Having already withheld $5.9 million from the North Avenue administrators pending proof of better management, the General Assembly may well continue this tactic if consultants find the city has failed to implement needed changes.

This is a propitious time for all parties to agree on the shape of a new city-state partnership for managing the schools. The system's management problems go beyond personalities and even beyond funding issues. Nine school systems in Maryland have less per pupil funding than Baltimore City and yet perform significantly better.

The gap between Baltimore City and the rest of the state -- including poor jurisdictions like Somerset County -- is large and growing. Sadly, Superintendent Walter G. Amprey's claim that the city schools, despite all their problems, are headed in the right direction is not borne out by the evidence. With almost PTC one-fourth of city schools now singled out as failing to perform, it is time to use the reconstitution process as the catalyst for deeper reform.

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