For 15 years, Baltimore Del. Clarence Davis has listened to the promises of one school official after another. He has attended meetings where teachers showed off new curriculum after new curriculum. He has seen principals come and principals go.
All the while, like the leafy, once-dignified neighborhood surrounding it, his local elementary school has slid further into decline.
So, when Maryland's superintendent of schools, Nancy S. Grasmick, arrived yesterday to tell state legislators about her hopes for three city elementary schools, Davis had a blunt question: What makes her think the state can do any better?
"Every other year, we have a new principal, a new program, what have you," said Davis, an East Baltimore Democrat who lives not far from Montebello Elementary School. "Schools can only be what we are in the community. I'm wondering about these entities that you're bringing in that have no concern for my community. What input have we had?"
It was the question asked by other city lawmakers in Annapolis. Though some were supportive, other city delegates and senators expressed profound reservations about the state school board's decision to take over three failing elementaries. Montebello, Gilmor and Furman L. Templeton will be turned over to private operators hired by the state July 1.
Davis and others pointed to the poor results of the city's pioneering attempt at school privatization in the early 1990s. The experiment was halted amid evidence that pupil performance had deteriorated rather than improved at a dozen schools run by Education Alternatives Inc., a for-profit Minneapolis company.
"I'm not happy," said Sen. Clarence M. Mitchell IV, who represents West Baltimore. "We lived through the EAI experiment, and look where that got us."
Two for-profit companies -- Mosaica Education Inc. and Edison Schools -- along with a nonprofit partnership of the Kennedy Krieger Institute and the Erickson Foundation, are bidding to run the three underachieving schools. The state board will select an operator based on specific plans to turn around pupil performance.
Grasmick came prepared to defend the need for state intervention and to deal with skeptical comparisons to Baltimore's past privatization venture.
At a hearing before the House Ways and Means Committee, she promised that the state takeover will be radically different. The operator will have to sign a "performance-based" contract, she said, and will be held to "very strict benchmarks."
No additional money will be available beyond what other city schools get. EAI received more than the average per-pupil expenditure. The teachers union and civic groups attacked the EAI experiment for shortchanging other schools.
When it started testing schools seven years ago, the state never expected that 83 of Baltimore's 184 schools would end up on its failing list, Grasmick said. But with no sign of progress at some schools, she said, the time has come to intervene.
At one of the three elementaries, she said, one in seven fifth-graders scored satisfactorily on last year's state test. At another, one in six fifth-graders achieved that mark, and in the third, no child did.
"For children in those schools, this is the only time they'll be in second grade, this is the only time they'll be in third grade," Grasmick said. "It was necessary this year for the school board to act. What chance do these children have when they arrive at middle schools?"
Under the state takeover, the outside contractor will hire teachers, principals and other staff members, though those at the schools now will be allowed to reapply. Those picked to stay will be employed by the operator, not the city schools, and the rest will be allowed to find jobs elsewhere in the system.
The promise that no jobs will be lost has not assuaged fears of the Baltimore Teachers Union. Marietta English, the union president, told the committee that the schools need more resources and stable leadership, and likened the takeover to "social engineering."
"How can a third party do better than those of us who live here, who went to Baltimore city schools, who send their children to Baltimore city schools and who will still be here when the contractor fails and goes home?" she said.
She questioned why the state is intervening now, just as the city school district has received a cautiously optimistic review of its 2 1/2 years of reform efforts aimed at reversing decades of decline.
Robert Booker, the city school chief, used that assessment to appeal for more state aid.
Booker told the committee that in his years of working in the Los Angeles school district, he never saw children with needs as great as those in Baltimore. He pointed to the many Baltimore children growing up without parents or living with relatives in impoverished neighborhoods where drug violence is commonplace.
"There's no support for these children other than the school system," he said.