School rescues miss mark How Baltimore reacts to intervention will determine its success

April 13, 1997|By Jean Thompson

On Tuesday, Gov. Parris N. Glendening signed into law a significant dose of financial aid for Baltimore's beleaguered schools, totaling $254 million over five years.

With the money will come state oversight and a redistribution of local power, which already have proven to be the bitter parts of the city-state prescription for fixing troubled schools.

The danger lies in the possibility that many in Baltimore won't get over it: Will they rise above their disappointment and devote their energies to making the schools better?

Unfortunately, the history of school intervention by state authorities is replete with examples where local bitterness prevails and impedes progress, where states overestimated their ability to run schools, and where rescue attempts missed the mark.

More than a dozen cities and county school systems have been seized or ordered to change by their states since New Jersey took over Jersey City schools in 1989. More are forecast.

Some of the districts are making headway, but few have produced significant improvement. Academic turnaround remains elusive, say the national groups that monitor education policy.

"No district that was taken over has really met the high standards that we all believe now should be set, instead of the minimum standards that we used to expect," said Christine Johnson, director of urban initiatives with the Denver-based Education Commission of the States. "There has been modest improvement in a few of these situations, in Chicago and in Paterson, N.J., for example, but it's too early to tell."

She and others at national groups could cite only one case in which a state returned control to the municipality: rural Logan County, W.Va.

Citing financial discrepancies and low student performance and attendance, the state took over the 32-school district in 1992, ousting its superintendent. Initially, local authorities rallied for a fight. In time, they got on board and scored a victory: Last year, crediting local authorities with cooperating to improve test scores and dropout rates, the state let go.

In so many other cases, however, it's been a rough ride: the reformers and the old guard failed to set goals for improving academics, bogged down in political squabbles, lobbed lawsuits each other.

"There is no question that people feel like 'This was done to me,' " Johnson said. "The challenge before your community, your church leaders, your teachers, your parents, is to demonstrate civic leadership - for the good of the children."

Other school systems continue to lag acadmically despite state-imposed reform because they devoted the reform to mopping up administrative mess. They turned too late to such issues as teacher training, curriculum refinement, special education and children's learning needs, noted Christopher Cross, executive director of the Washington-based Council for Basic Education, and president of the Maryland Board of Education.

In many of these cases, it is understandable because the state had intervened to clean up unsound fiscal practices, rampant corruption, or budget woes caused by voter reluctance to fund schools.

In some, the tug-of-war continues among the powerful groups that stand to benefit from the millions of dollars invested in education: teachers and other employees; ministers who want to protect the many school jobs that support their congregations; grantors and vendors and consultants and others who have contracts and thus, a stake, in the largest municipal department and budget.

Cross said: "The whole thing gets reduced to this: The interests of this generation being played off against the interests of the next generation."

The negotiators who drafted the Baltimore school reform plan learned from some of those lessons, he added. Although they did not have every faction at the table, lawsuits forced many key players to be present or to advisebehind the scenes.

As a result, Baltimore's reform prescription is a hybrid - not a strict takeover, but an overhaul to be designed and carried out by a new school board made up of city residents, whose work will fall under intense scrutiny.

At the heart of the Baltimore agreement is the development of a master plan for improving student achievement. Only a few other states and municipalities had the foresight to begin their agonizing school re-evaluation and reorganization by recognizing classrooms as the place where schools get better.

But it is only a plan. And a plan is an opportunity. If the schools are to improve, it will not be solely because of a clean sweep of top management or the sudden appearance of state officials.

It will be because the community stepped forward and refused to squander the opportunity, said Joan Roache, executive director of the Maryland Education Coalition, which monitors school finance and policy.

"This is the time for parents and others to tell the new school board what has worked and should be continued and what has not worked and should be changed," she said. "This is the time to get ready."

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