The mayor's famous victory

June 02, 1996|By Sara Engram

FOR ADMIRERS of Maryland's school-reform effort, the showdown between a governor who wants to please and a mayor determined to dig in his heels holds ominous implications.

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke got what he wanted this past week -- a veto of legislation attaching strings to $5.9 million in state funds for city schools. In return, Gov. Parris N. Glendening got a less-than-firm commitment from the mayor to sign onto a city-state school-management partnership within 60 days.

In other words, the mayor won this round, even though the governor held the big cards.

School reform lost. And so did Mr. Glendening, who has made a great show of being fully ''on board'' the reform effort, but whose support didn't survive a showdown with a political ally.

If the mayor's victory strengthened the city or did anything at all to improve conditions in schools where city children are being cheated of their educational birthright, there might be some solace in this setback for reform.

But, of course, the victory is only temporary. The most it can do is help the mayor balance the schools budget by June 30.

Angry legislators

Mayor Schmoke made it clear this week that he does not regard the partnership envisioned by the state as a settled question. The governor had hoped to extract a firm commitment from the mayor as the price of his veto. He failed to get it, but went ahead fTC with the veto anyway. That leaves legislators not only angry, but in a bind.

The General Assembly already has decreed that in the absence of a partnership, another $12 million in state funds will be withheld from city schools next year. In addition, $12 million in new money for the partnership will be denied to the city. Now that the governor and the mayor have snubbed the legislature's attempt to impose consequences for unaccountability in school management, the General Assembly may be inclined to increase the penalties.

Shunning the partnership could cost the mayor some $24 million. But having succeeded in persuading the governor to end-run legislative intentions, Mayor Schmoke now has good reason to believe he doesn't have to take the legislature at its word.

The success of school reform depends on the ability of the Maryland State Department of Education to set standards and enforce them on local subdivisions. That clout has been strong until now, because there has been a remarkable, even historic, constellation of support for difficult reforms -- from the governor's office and key legislative leaders to the state board of education and influential business leaders.

Schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick is a determined and persuasive advocate for reform, but without strong support backing her up, the educational issues can easily be swamped by politics. Her boss has let her down badly. He also let down the state board, as well as business leaders who have gone out on a limb to support reform across the state.

Everyone knew from the beginning that the crucial test of school reform would come in Baltimore, the system facing the biggest obstacles to success. Some of those obstacles can be alleviated with money -- but not all of them.

Yet the city clings to the argument that it simply needs more dollars to deal with the problems its children bring to school every day. Apparently the mayor is placing great faith in a pending lawsuit that demands more money from the state. But the lawsuit doesn't say how much money it needs, or how it would be spent. Nor does it mention the embarrassing fact that the city isn't able to spend all the money it gets now.

Some examples: In fiscal year 1993, the city failed to expend $1.7 million in federal funds for special education. The same year, it had to return $168,000 in federal funds for vocational education. In 1994, it failed to spend another $2.2 million in federal special-education funds. For fiscal years 1993 and 1994, city schools failed to seek reimbursement for a total of $23.5 million in Medicaid funds.

No one expects a school system to perform with total precision in using its available resources. But when a system goes to court to demand more money from already rebellious taxpayers, it ought to be able to demonstrate it is already doing the best it can with what it has. With city schools, that is simply not the case.

When Maryland signed on to an ambitious school-reform effort, no one thought it would be easy. It hasn't been, and it won't be in the future. But nobody envisioned that an ''education mayor'' would choose the schools as the place to defy the state -- or that a governor ostensibly committed to school reform would cave in with so little to show for his trouble.

Sara Engram is deputy editorial-page editor of The Sun.

Pub Date: 6/02/96

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