Dickensian

August 01, 2004

LAST WEEK, the chief school executives of the city of Baltimore and the state of Maryland spent not one but two full days sitting quietly in straight-backed chairs while lawyers representing five different litigants parried and thrusted and skepticated and cantankerized for the benefit of two solemn judges.

Neither Bonnie S. Copeland nor Nancy S. Grasmick actually had a chance to speak before the court, nor did the judges render any decisions.

Everyone will have to reassemble this week for more court time.

Is this any way to run a school system?

Two lawsuits were joined for last week's hearing. One has been plodding onward since 1996; the other since 1984. That's 28 years of lawyers. And just listen to them!

America's adversarial legal system pits one argument against another. Lawyers bear down on witnesses to extract concessions with which they can build cases. We all know this. But bullying school system bureaucrats in a courtroom is just plain unlikely to provide a very accurate picture of the true state of things in a 91,000-student school system.

Dueling in court scores points; it doesn't lead to understanding.

The city wants to get out from under the older of the two lawsuits, which has to do with special education, and which has proved to be very expensive over the years. There's no particular reason to believe that the rights of special-education students would be respected without the lawsuit. That's why it would be a terrible mistake to accede to the city's wishes, especially at a time of such financial turmoil. Without a judge watching, the pressure to cut corners would be immense.

But our argument is that two decades is long enough to show that the dueling-lawyers approach is just not particularly helpful.

Someone has to keep the city's feet to the fire -- but there has to be a better way.

Recently, a panel of three lawyers conducted an investigation into how the city's school finances went so far astray; their emphasis was on figuring out what happened, not on winning a debate. Nationally, the same process has just been displayed in the report of the bipartisan 9/11 commission. The parallels aren't exact -- but doesn't this seem like a far better use of everyone's (highly expensive) time?

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