Time to settle the schools suit City-state stand-off: Mayor should declare victory and take the money.

November 02, 1996

THERE'S NO disagreement that Baltimore City's public schools need more money. Virtually every study of the risk factors for academic failure point to the problems common to children raised in poverty. Since Baltimore City has the state's highest concentration of poor children, it is not surprising that it has more than its share of failing public schools.

Unlike previous lawsuits that had to prove that city students were not getting an adequate education, the lawsuits currently pending before Baltimore Circuit Judge Joseph H. H. Kaplan don't carry that burden. Maryland's system of performance assessment tests has set out standards of accountability the state expects from schools, and the scores from many of the city's schools provide evidence that their pupils are failing to meet those standards.

Given the agreement on the problem, why is it so difficult to reach a solution, as Judge Kaplan evidently wants to do? In part, because of the gap between what seems equitable and just to the city and what seems possible to those responsible for the fiscal integrity of the state.

If a judge had the power to tell the people of Maryland to pay higher taxes, the problem might be resolved more to the city's liking. But that's not how the government works, so political realities become a major component in any successful negotiation. The governor has offered $182 million over five years -- not enough, but far more than the city has now.

Despite the mayor's confidence, a trial is risky for the city. Along with its case for more money, the judge will hear a great deal of testimony suggesting that under current management the school system is incapable of spending money effectively. And even if the city wins a sizable judgment from the court, the state will appeal, dragging the process out.

Meanwhile, children will continue to fail to learn the skills they need to succeed, and the city's economy will suffer as families continue to move in search of effective schools. Judge Kaplan is putting his prestige on the line in pushing hard for a settlement. Likewise, the governor is stretching to provide a decent funding offer. The mayor should take what is offered -- and make sure the schools use it wisely. Then, with a record of demonstrated results, he can go back and ask the state for more.

Pub Date: 11/02/96

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