New start for city schools State partnership: New funds, restructuring promise measurable improvements.

November 29, 1996

WHILE THE ROAD to this week's official agreement on a city-state schools partnership was long and rocky, there are still obstacles ahead. But the goodwill and high hopes evident at the announcement Tuesday ought to be savored. Although far from perfect, the accord is a crucial step in Maryland's long-term efforts to improve public schools for children in its biggest city.

It had long been evident that the toughest test of Maryland's commitment to reform would come in Baltimore City, where schools face all the problems associated with urban poverty, and where performances have been abysmal for many years. Ironically, it was agreement among the various parties in court litigation about the shameful decline of city schools that helped lead to an agreement.

There was no dispute that city schools fail to provide an adequate education for students. Disagreements arose largely over how much additional money city schools needed to turn the situation around and how much was politically possible. There were also differing opinions on the extent of management reforms required to improve the schools.

The money promised by the state -- pending legislative approval is not enough to accomplish all the improvements necessary in city schools. But coupled with management changes that should help the system spend funds more effectively, the additional quarter-billion dollars can make a significant difference over the next five years. A state assessment program will serve as a benchmark for judging results. If student achievement shows steady improvement, the city will have a good case for requesting even more state aid. Without good results, it will be difficult to pry loose funds coveted by every school system in Maryland.

A key sticking point in this controversy revolved around the chicken-and-egg question of which comes first, management reforms or more money. With two pending lawsuits based on funding issues, plus a long-running federal suit filed on behalf of special education students, the city and state faced years of expensive litigation -- with no relief in sight for students stuck in a failed school system.

This settlement avoids that prospect. While improvement won't happen overnight, the city-state partnership sets up a strict timetable for structural reforms and for additional infusions of financial aid. It offers hope to parents of Baltimore children that the city's public schools soon will begin to offer students the educational opportunities they need -- and deserve -- to succeed in life.

Pub Date: 11/29/96

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