State has a duty to take over city schools

February 15, 2004|By DAN RODRICKS

EVERYONE agrees that more radical changes -- and more money -- are needed to get the Baltimore school system out of financial trouble, provide enough teachers and resources for its 92,000 students and get us closer to a day when middle-class city families can stay put and not move to the 'burbs to ensure their kids get a decent education.

Tall order.

So why not do what should have been done years ago? The state should take over the school system completely -- not just to make sure taxpayer dollars are spent wisely but to make sure the present generation of Baltimore schoolchildren gets what too many of their predecessors didn't: an education that takes them to higher ground.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. dismissed the idea of a state takeover the other day. He shouldn't, especially if he's going to offer a fix to the school's immediate fiscal crisis with more state money.

Pardon me while I have an interlude: Did I ever tell you about the impeccably attired Baltimore school superintendent with the suit bag at the Downtown Athletic Club?

It was about 15 years ago now -- man, does time fly when you're having a long-term crisis in education! -- and the man then in charge of the Baltimore schools was seen regularly going into the DAC, to work out, to shower and to change from one fine suit to another.

Not that there was anything wrong with that.

Except that it was the middle of the day, and one didn't have the impression the man had been up all night working on the daunting issues facing a big-city school superintendent.

I knew the Baltimore schools were in trouble -- and that thousands of young middle-class homeowners were marching out of the city every year because they couldn't trust the system with their kids -- but it hit home when I saw one of former Mayor Kurt Schmoke's school superintendents casually picking up towels at the front desk of the DAC in the middle of a working day.

Something had to change -- or the kids remaining in Baltimore's public schools didn't have a chance.

For years, Baltimore mayors didn't seem to be able to log any progress in the city schools -- and they didn't seem all that interested. Let's be honest -- fixing the schools was an enormous challenge, and the mayors we've watched since the early 1980s appeared to shrug at what to do about it. They faced plenty of other problems without sticking their noses into classrooms, and they were frustrated in trying to penetrate and influence the power structure on North Avenue. One mayor offered a slogan aimed at rubbing out illiteracy, but you can't just sloganize your way out of high dropout rates, chronic absenteeism, underfunded and failing schools.

So something had to change -- or the kids didn't have a chance.

In the 1990s, there was a lot of kicking and screaming about a proposed state takeover of the school system. Some even cried racism -- that the attempt by the state to bring full accountability and a new culture to North Avenue was an effort by the white power structure in Maryland to wrest control of the beleaguered city schools from a black mayor.

So the politicians struck a deal, and there was a "partial state takeover" of the school system in 1997, and that came with a nice infusion of cash from Maryland taxpayers.

Not that there was anything wrong with that.

We all know that, after years of chronic underfunding, the school system needed more. The thousands of kids we saw walking to their neighborhood schools each day needed more attention than their peers in the suburbs. Poor kids, at 6 or 7 years old, live with real deficits -- in family, in nourishment, in attention, in stability. We all know these things. We all know the kids in Baltimore need special, intensified help if they are ever to get to higher ground.

But after a few years of making nice strides in student achievement under the partial state takeover, the system is facing a $58 million deficit and accusations of malfeasance; the state school superintendent is calling for an investigation to find out how this happened; the teachers are fighting off proposed wage cuts and threats of layoffs (as they should). We keep hearing promises of significant change in the administration of the schools, but the system is still top-heavy.

So we're told there's going to be a conference call today -- with the state school superintendent talking with the governor's people and former state Sen. Robert Neall, financial adviser to the schools. Ehrlich says he wants long-term fiscal and management changes to the school system -- it's nice to see a Republican leader worried about a budget deficit -- and he concedes that the state is the only possible source of funding.

But the governor doesn't like the idea of the state assuming responsibility for the system.

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