City should rethink selling control of schools cheaply

March 22, 1997|By GREGORY KANE

Baltimore City Council President Lawrence Bell didn't get his job by being the shy and reserved type.

So no one should have been surprised Tuesday when he held a press conference and excoriated an amendment to a school aid bill that he said will have the state take over city schools for something like forever.

The amendment is a "vehicle to castrate city government," Bell charged. Ah, harsh language indeed. But harsh situations call for harsh language. Bell is right. When he told reporters at the press conference that the amendment is "undemocratic," he hit on something others in the school aid controversy have missed.

The original deal called for a state role in operating city schools for a five-year period, in exchange for $254 million of state money for city schools. The amendment calls for state involvement in city schools - including naming school board members - after that period and for an unspecified length of time.

At first glance it sounds as if city politicians are trying to sell the school system to the state. But Baltimore residents had better wake up and recognize that what's being sold isn't the school system, but our right to a say in how our schools are run. And we shouldn't give that [See Kane, 3b] up for a measly $254 million. I'd say that's worth, at the very least, a couple of billion.

Some people have the quaint notion that turning Baltimore schools over to the state will automatically cure the ills that beset the system. State control, the thinking goes, is better than local control.

Anybody familiar with Baltimore history knows the fallacy of such thinking. For years - and mind you, I'm talking nearly a century here - the governor appointed Baltimore's police commissioner. The practice started during the Civil War, and it took us decades to get back our right to appoint our police chief.

And, lest we forget, the Baltimore Police Department wasn't especially good with the governor appointing the commissioner. One of the most notorious incidents in Baltimore's history came in 1964, when city police went on a jackboot operation in search of Sam and Earl Veney - searching the homes of black Baltimoreans without even a pretense of probable cause, not to mention warrants.

Bernard Schmidt, the commissioner at the time, was a gubernatorial appointee. In the mid-1960s The Sun ran several articles exposing inefficiency in the Police Department. It would not be inaccurate to characterize Baltimore police of this era as brutal, racist and incompetent. So much for state control necessarily being better.

Baltimore regained the right to appoint its own commissioner in 1967, when Gov. Spiro Agnew agreed to return control of the police to the city. We have selected commissioners who have, at the very least, done no worse than gubernatorial appointees. At least no Baltimore police commissioner appointed by the city has repeated that Veney fiasco.

Baltimore's school system is, in the view of many, a disaster. But it didn't get that way overnight.

School Superintendent Walter Amprey said in an interview that the slide began in the late 1960s or early 1970s. When he was in school in the 1950s and early 1960s, all students came to class with one goal: to learn. That culture doesn't exist in city schools today, but Amprey was able to cite two programs - at two schools slated for state takeover - that indicate the system may be headed in an upward, not a downward, direction.

Three years ago, Patterson High School was nearly out of control. Students roamed the halls, with virtually no discipline and little learning going on. By dividing the school up into career academies, Patterson officials have turned the school around.

Jay Hanson, public relations manager with Maryland New Directions, developed a program at Frederick Douglass High School to remedy the appalling dropout rate (61 percent) for ninth-grade boys. "For the boys who've entered the program, attendance has gone up and the dropout rate down," Hanson said. "The most important change has been in their attitude. They now realize the importance of going to school."

Hanson, with that one quote, pointed out the crux of the problem with Baltimore City public schools. The problem is not one of state control vs. city control. What, after all, can the state do to improve the already excellent education Baltimore's students are getting at City College, Polytechnic Institute, Western High and the School for the Arts?

The problem is winning the hearts and minds of the students who don't attend those elite schools. The experiences at Patterson and Douglass show that the battle to redeem city schools may have to be done grade by grade and school by school. Before Baltimoreans give up their right to a voice in how that battle is fought, they should ask state officials to present a plan to show victory can be achieved within five years.

Pub Date: 3/22/97

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