Disincentive

January 16, 2004

TALK ABOUT rubbing salt into a wound: Just as Baltimore school officials are considering furloughs and pay cuts to help repair a hemorrhaged budget comes word that the state is inclined to block the flow of federal poverty funds to compel better compliance on a school reform measure.

According to U.S. Department of Education spokesmen yesterday, Baltimore is not under federal sanctions -- though this city and Los Angeles have been asked to explain what they're doing to help students transfer from failing to better schools or to help them get free tutoring, as allowed under the No Child Left Behind Act.

It's up to the state Department of Education to monitor progress under the mandate and compel improvement, and the department recently sent Baltimore a letter declaring the district out of compliance. The district disputes that, saying it's done all that's been required to arrange services for 1,208 children and also to help get to better schools 137 of the 495 students who sought transfers. Many who didn't go declined the school change offered them, preferring to stay in their own neighborhoods, and transportation problems initially discouraged others.

In a school system with too many low-scoring schools, there were more than 27,000 students eligible to move or get extra help this school year, so no one can argue that Baltimore cannot do more.

This week, state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick told The Sun that she'll hold up the payment of $35 million in aid if the district doesn't comply with the law. Sure, she can, but should she?

It's pretty hard to fathom how financially penalizing a near-bankrupt district would speed improvements. At best, it embarrasses; at worst, it compounds the district's existing $58 million deficit.

We'll always contend that the district must be held accountable for its financial and school-reform mistakes. But it's also true that the cudgel prescribed by the No Child Left Behind Act is misguided, as it ultimately punishes children -- not districts or their leaders. Title I aid supplies teachers, classroom materials, remedial programs and a host of other resources intended to give students most likely to start with deficits help catching up to their wealthier peers.

If tough leadership is warranted to ensure the neediest students have school choice, so be it. But withholding poverty aid is the wrong stick to wield.

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