Clumsy state educators fan flames of local revolt

February 22, 2002|By Kalman R. Hettleman

NO GOOD deed, it's said, goes unpunished. Take the Maryland State Board of Education's recent highly publicized decision to overturn the Prince George's County school board's dismissal of Superintendent Iris T. Metts.

The county board and school chief have been locked in all-out conflict, with almost all observers - including the Maryland Department of Education and state legislators - supporting Ms. Metts against a board often described as power-drunk and buffoonish.

Still, the state board ruling was based on a virtually unknown law, dating to 1916, that appears to strip all local school boards (except Baltimore City's) of their power to fire local superintendents.

The law has not been used since 1937, and for good reason. It deals a near death blow to the sacred education canon of "local control."

No state in the country gives state educators such absolute power.

No wonder local officials have reacted with outrage. Moreover, the timing of what some perceive as a power grab by state educators could not be worse.

Over the past 20 years, there has been a steady, powerful nationwide movement toward greater state authority over local schools. Nowhere is this more evident than in Maryland.

For two consecutive years, Education Week - the leading national education newspaper - has ranked our state No. 1 for its high standards, including content requirements, testing (MSPAP) and accountability sanctions. Recently, a blue-ribbon panel convened by the state Department of Education boldly called for a statewide curriculum.

Despite some missteps, this has been the right direction. And owing in large part to the peerless political skills of state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick, it has been achieved without significant local opposition.

But that progress was threatened even before the Metts explosion. Local school systems and growing numbers of parents are beginning to rebel against the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program, the cornerstone of accountability. Worse, local officials view the state board as increasingly insensitive to local concerns; the board's recent support of a pending state bill governing collective bargaining at the local level is one example that was bitterly cited.

The Metts ruling fans the flames of this uprising. Even proponents of strong state authority can't defend the state's power to fire superintendents. Local boards will lose too much leverage in dealing with their school chiefs.

As a general principle, the state should set standards, but local districts should decide how to meet them (and suffer the consequences of poor performance).

Why, then, did the state board take a unanimous action that appears both bad policy and inept politics? Board sources say the answer is simple: The state attorney general's office advised that the law left no choice.

Still, some critics suggest that there could have been legal leeway for the state board to delay a decision.

The issue could have been left to the General Assembly, because it seems certain to pass an emergency bill within the next week or so creating an oversight body with the power to rescind the firing of Ms. Metts.

At the least, the state board, at the time of its ruling, could have recognized legitimate concerns over the wisdom of the state law being invoked and tried to limit the local backlash. It could have committed itself to a review of the law and possible recommendation that the General Assembly change it.

The board should still do this in the course of a thorough public reappraisal of the full range of state-local issues. The essential case for far-reaching state standards should be reinforced. But it should be balanced by efforts by state educators to relinquish unjustifiable limits on local control - notably their vast, expendable power to review local decisions over personnel and many other routine local matters.

This reappraisal should help to disarm die-hard localists. State educators can regain the momentum needed to strengthen their authority where it counts the most: on basic high standards that guide and measure the performance of local school systems and students.

Kalman R. Hettleman is an education consultant, a former member of the Baltimore City school board and a former state human resources secretary. His e-mail address is khettlem@erols.com.

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