As adults argue, children are scarred

September 22, 1996|By Sara Engram

WHICH CAME FIRST, the chicken or the egg? In some ways, that age-old riddle resembles the current standoff between city and state officials over the fate of Baltimore City Public Schools.

Two questions hover over the issue:

1. How much money do the schools need to provide an adequate education for a student population that includes some of the poorest children in the state?

2. Assuming the schools do need more money -- a fact no one in this debate denies -- how much of an initial increase is politically possible in a tight state budget without assurances of accountability from a school system with a reputation for mismanagement?

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and his allies insist that money comes first -- and that the state's recent offer projecting increases of an additional $50 million a year by 2001 is not enough.

State officials reply that the increases represent a substantial commitment for a state required to balance its budget and facing a structural deficit. It is unrealistic, they say, for the city to expect the state to hand over more money, no strings attached.

Ah, those strings. We want accountability, says the state. You want control, the city retorts. Meanwhile, too many children are condemned to schools that fail them academically and even threaten their physical safety.

When Hazelwood Elementary School called the school system's engineers last June 18 to report an ''extreme emergency'' with a runaway boiler system pumping overheated water through the building's pipes, apparently no one in the maintenance office recognized the seriousness of the situation.

It's bad enough that no one was available to rush to the school. Even worse, no one even had the minimal training necessary to tell frightened school officials how to avoid disaster -- such as by reporting the problem to BGE and asking to have the gas shut off or by turning on faucets to relieve the pressure building in the system.

A girl is scarred

As it happened, a young girl was scalded and left scarred for life. That's horrible enough, but at least a deadly explosion was averted -- unlike a similar crisis in 1982 in which six children and a teacher were killed at an Oklahoma elementary school.

The daily scarring of children who fail to learn to read or compute, who fail to achieve the skills that will be necessary to make their way in the world occurs less dramatically. But the damage is just as real. In that context, the spectacle of adults arguing about which comes first, money or management reforms, is absurd. Clearly, we need both.

But those adults also need to come to terms with political reality. Baltimore no longer has the clout to demand more money on its own terms. With every school district in the state thirsty for more funds for one purpose or another, no big increase for the city is possible unless legislators can demonstrate they have gotten something in return -- namely, accountability and the willingness to accept consequences for failure.

Baltimore is not alone in its school problems. Visit any urban district in the country and you can find similar situations. But good parents and teachers never accept ''everybody does it'' as an excuse for bad performance, and Maryland's effort to reform its schools is based on the assumption that change is possible. More important, in an economy increasingly based on information and the ability to use it, taxpayers cannot afford to accept such an excuse.

The Baltimore schools are beleaguered by many problems. But none is worse than the attitude that suggests that poverty and all the obstacles it creates for children means they cannot learn and achieve, and that the management of city schools simply can't get much better. Fortunately, there are enough success stories that prove that attitude wrong.

Chicken or egg? That argument can go on forever.

Money or management? The people who hold the purse strings have a clear response to that question. And if the city doesn't like their solution, it may well get an answer no one will like -- a school system in court receivership.

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

Pub Date: 9/22/96

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