School crackdown

August 27, 2004

MARYLAND'S top education officials are tightening the screws on the Baltimore school system. Too much violence, they say. Too much misspending. Too much mismanagement. State Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick says she's been an "enabler" for too long, and now it's time to hold some feet to the fire. Her timing is peculiar, to say the least, and her motivation puzzling.

Bashing the city schools may make for easy sport, and it may be popular among those who don't like Baltimore, but the system has just come through a harrowing year and it's under new management that has already gone a long way to address some of the most serious problems. For years, things were getting out of hand while Ms. Grasmick was "enabling"; now that the city's school chief, Bonnie Copeland, is trying to get the system back on its feet, the state board and state superintendent are letting her have it with both barrels.

Mayor Martin O'Malley, who pre-empted a state takeover this spring with a city loan, since mostly repaid, says he's the real target - because he is a likely opponent in 2006 of Ms. Grasmick's boss, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. That would seem like political mouthing off, except that Ms. Grasmick has made no secret of her disdain for the mayor and her determination to lessen his supposedly malign influence over the schools.

This week's state board meeting brought the dramatic announcement that 16 Baltimore schools are in danger of being labeled "persistently dangerous" because of their unacceptably high suspension and expulsion rates. They've all been put on a year's probation.

Ms. Copeland takes issue with the statistics that led to this, arguing that not all the incidents were genuinely violent, and that some took place off school grounds. State officials defend their work, as they should if they believe they're right. More significantly, though, the city schools CEO said she had been led to understand that the city and state had until Sept. 10 to discuss their differing interpretations, and that she was caught off guard by Tuesday's public announcement. She's too nice to say so, but her point is that she was sandbagged. The city, in any case, is moving to address the problem by dividing troubled middle schools into smaller units and with a new conflict resolution program, she says.

On Wednesday, the state board voted to appeal the ruling by Judge Joseph H. H. Kaplan in which he found that the state was in continuing violation of the Maryland Constitution for underfinancing the city schools - by hundreds of millions of dollars. He didn't order the state to come up with the money right away, but he did give the system some leeway in paying down its deficit. The state should be supportive; instead, state board President Edward L. Root declared that more money isn't going to solve the city's problems.

A little history lesson: The Baltimore school system got into a financial hole by irresponsibly spending money it didn't have. It spent that money on higher teacher salaries, smaller class sizes, summer school, academic coaches and mentors - and it raised test scores system-wide. The spending was profligate, in other words, but the money made a difference.

Judge Kaplan understood that. We wish Mr. Root and Ms. Grasmick would, too. But rather than helping out, the state will apparently ask in its appeal for some sort of new authority over the city system. That might indeed be a slap at Mayor O'Malley - but it won't do the kids any good.

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