THE TROUBLES at Northern High School in Baltimore City are serious enough; the last thing the school needs is political candidates rushing in to try to turn the situation into a campaign issue to garner votes.
Yet there was Ellen R. Sauerbrey, front-runner for the Republican nomination for governor next year, holding a press conference with her supporters last Wednesday in front of the beleaguered school.
Ms. Sauerbrey is right about one thing. If taxes were the political issue that touched the deepest nerves in the last statewide election three years ago, this time education seems to be uppermost on voters' minds.
With a Democratic incumbent who likes to bill himself as "the education governor," it comes as no surprise that Ms. Sauerbrey and other challengers seek to debunk that claim.
But there is a huge risk in politicizing education. Maryland's progress in successfully implementing public school reform depends on maintaining a consensus over the importance of the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program (MSPAP) and other means of measuring progress and holding people accountable for results.
To succeed, school reform cannot be identified with any particular administration or party; instead it must be recognized as something each governor must support and encourage in every way possible.
Ms. Sauerbrey's call for stricter state controls on classroom discipline may sound like simple common sense. But her zero-tolerance approach to violent behavior would impose a statewide standard in an area best left to local school boards.
State education officials already have the challenging task of shepherding a school reform process that is essential to educating students for the 21st century. Their success so far is in large part due to widespread support for reform, which has prevented electoral politics from derailing the often-difficult and controversial process.
If the state were to impose itself in disciplinary issues, the situation would be ripe for political meddling. That would especially be true if, as Ms. Sauerbrey suggests, the state superintendent could withhold financial aid to punish school systems for failing to meet statewide disciplinary standards.
Maryland has made enormous progress in imposing accountability on its public schools. Turning those issues into campaign sound bites poses a danger to a reform agenda that, so far, has remained largely above the fray of electoral politics.
Our strong suggestion to all gubernatorial candidates next year -- keep your campaigns out of the schools. Let local school boards and superintendents come up with ways to handle their disciplinary problems without unnecessary meddling from the governor's office.
Pub Date: 12/01/97