Settle the school suit

November 03, 1996|By SARA ENGRAM

BALTIMORE CIRCUIT Court Judge Joseph H. H. Kaplan is determined to see a settlement between Baltimore City and the state of Maryland in the long-running dispute about the funding and management of the city's public schools.

He's right. The alternative is a trial lasting several weeks, probably followed by lengthy appeals. The legal fees will continue to grow (the city reportedly has already spent more than $3 million on its case). But worse, yet another school year will slide by with no serious attempts to fix a system that everyone agrees is broken.

This case ought to be settled out of court. After all, the basic premise is not in dispute: City schools are failing to provide an adequate education to a student population with the state's highest concentration of poor children, in large part because they lack the resources to do so.

Unlike previous efforts to achieve more funding through the courts, this time all parties -- the city, the state and the American Civil Liberties Union (which has filed its own lawsuit requesting more state funding and management reforms) -- agree on the problem. The challenge is to agree on a solution.

Even that would be relatively easy in an atmosphere not burdened by politics, especially racial politics, or complicated by an economic climate in which rustling up a few million extra dollars here and there is no longer as easy as it once was.

In fact, the money Gov. Parris N. Glendening put on the table last summer -- some $182 million over five years -- is a testament to Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's political gamesmanship and the governor's eagerness to make a deal.

That's a major accomplishment. Only three years ago, a commission headed by Greater Baltimore Committee president, Donald P. Hutchinson, bowed to political realities and scaled back its plan to recommended that Maryland increase its funding for public schools by some $550 million over a five-year period.

Instead, the commission suggested that then-Gov. William Donald Schaefer ask for an additional $69 million for schools in the 1994 legislative session. The governor balked even at that amount, and the commission ended up suggesting an increase of only $47.3 million for that year.

Compare that to $182 million over five years for the city alone -- from a governor who is facing political pressures to cut taxes before the next election as well as a serious structural deficit in the state's finances.

Better than nothing

Of course it's not enough. But it's a lot better than nothing, especially if it is combined with some other financial incentives .. and help on capital expenditures for facilities and maintenance.

If the state can produce those dollars, then surely the city can agree to the obvious -- that this system badly needs a stronger management structure. But this is where the issue gets complicated by questions of politics and power.

Mayor Schmoke and his allies have tried to portray the state's proposals as an attempted takeover of city schools. But what the state is asking of the city represents less power than it already holds over other counties.

In Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties, for instance, the governor appoints all members of the school boards. In the city's case, the state is asking that the governor and mayor jointly appoint the board, which is now appointed solely by the mayor.

The state also wants the mayor to give up his power -- also unique in the state -- to control the school's finances and personnel.

Even so, its proposals have elicited charges that the state wants to usurp power from a city and school system controlled by African Americans. That rings hollow with Del. Howard ''Pete'' Rawlings, an African-American city resident who chairs the House Appropriations Committee and who has long been a leading force for reform of the city schools.

''If white folks were operating a school system in which black children were getting such a bad education, black citizens would be outraged and raising charges of racism. They would be marching and demonstrating for reform,'' he says.

And that's the bottom line: Under current circumstances, children in Baltimore's public schools are being cheated of their educational birthright, and with Maryland's performance assessment program we now have the evidence to prove it. No one, least of all the city, can afford the consequences of failing schools.

Kudos to Judge Kaplan for trying to push the parties toward a solution.

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

Pub Date: 11/03/96

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