AS THE DEADLINE approaches for a city-state partnership for Baltimore's overburdened school system, it is time to deal with realities -- not rhetoric, partisanship or wishful thinking. There is one point on which all parties can agree: The problems of urban poverty place a heavy burden on Baltimore's public schools. No one disputes the system's need for more resources.
Neither can there be real dispute about the failures of city schools. There are success stories and, yes, some modest progress. But that progress is so slight the system would take generations to reach the standards Maryland has set for the year 2000. Meanwhile, in too many schools, performances on state tests are not simply failing to improve, but declining.
The dilemma, then, is not whether the state needs to increase its aid to Baltimore City schools, but how it will do so and by how much. That is the crux of the dispute between legislative leaders and Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and, more recently, between Gov. Parris N. Glendening and the mayor.
The governor and mayor are scheduled to meet Friday, in anticipation of Sunday's deadline. If they reach no partnership agreement, city schools will be coping with severe cuts. Not only will they face penalties imposed by the General Assembly, they will also be giving up significant aid increases available only with a partnership in place. This is unnecessary. Contrary to some claims, the state is not seeking to take over city schools. The schools' governing board would be comprised of city residents appointed jointly by the city and the state board.
What the state does want is more responsiveness and accountability from a system that on both counts has frustrated legislators and education officials for many years. Their expectation is reasonable. Political realities, including a tight state budget and regional rivalries, make it difficult and probably impossible to direct more aid to the city without clear lines of accountability in return.
Mayor Schmoke has been putting his faith in a lawsuit demanding more funding for city schools. But a legal remedy takes time, if it comes forth at all. If the city won its case, the state would almost certainly appeal a decision usurping its budgetary authority. In any case, court rooms are not the best places to decide educational policy.
The acrimony over city schools and state intentions has obscured the common agenda at the heart of this debate -- the best interests of the children of Baltimore City. They cannot wait for a perfect solution. What they fail to learn now will haunt them, and the rest of us, for years to come.
Pub Date: 7/24/96