Education might not be the right fight for this mayor

August 17, 2005|By GREGORY KANE

STOP THE presses. Rewind those videotapes.

Has Baltimore's mayor - a liberal Democrat - found a passion for the principle of federalism?

Mayor Martin O'Malley lashed out this week at Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., accusing him of hindering the progress of Baltimore's public schools. And progress in Baltimore public schools, as we all know, is what they're so famously known for.

The attack on Ehrlich wasn't surprising, since O'Malley's campaign for the State House began right after then-Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend lost her gubernatorial bid in 2002.

If there's a just and merciful God who rules the universe, that campaign will end next year, with either O'Malley being elected governor or Ehrlich being re-elected.

But O'Malley added to his list U.S. District Judge Marvin J. Garbis, who recently ordered state intervention in the city's special-education services. What O'Malley said about Ehrlich is to be expected - "the governor and his administration seem to be obsessed with getting in the way of public school progress," yada, yada, yada - but it was his comments about Garbis that are more worthy of note.

"You cannot run the city school system, or especially the complicated task of special education, from a bench, albeit a federal bench, once every couple of months in status report hearings."

Coming from a liberal Democrat - most of whom have never seen federal intervention, in anything, that they didn't like - O'Malley's comments are extraordinary.

He's right, of course. Federal judges shouldn't be meddling in matters of local education, except perhaps in some extreme circumstances.

Some will argue that the pathetic state of special education in Baltimore is one of those circumstances. O'Malley clearly isn't one of them.

But will his new commitment to federalism - the notion that powers are shared by state governments and the federal government, with limited powers for the latter - extend to other areas?

Will O'Malley, for example, now disavow his support of sending Baltimore defendants charged with gun crimes to federal courts? It wasn't that long ago when O'Malley was criticizing former U.S. Attorney Thomas M. DiBiagio for not prosecuting enough of the city's gunslingers.

In fact, O'Malley went further than that. Three years ago, he and then-Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris supported bringing "Federal Day" to our town.

Law enforcement officials would designate one day a month as "federal day." Anyone arrested on that day on drug, gun or murder charges wouldn't be tried in state court, where they should be tried.

Nooo. They'd have the cases kicked up to federal court. Why? Federal courts have tougher sentences. Federal prisons are stricter about parole. Federal courts stack the deck against defendants far more efficiently than state courts do.

And mind you, "Federal Day" would have applied to anyone, from the hard-core drug dealer who killed as part of his trade to that scared kid who carried a handgun to protect himself from the neighborhood stick-up boys.

OK, so let's assume it's not a commitment to federalism that O'Malley has, just an objection to federal judges shoving their noses into local education matters. Fine. Then the question becomes: Is education really the battle O'Malley wants to fight?

He's good at fighting the crime battle. He promised during his first mayoral campaign to lower crime in the city, and he made good. Of course, he's turned certain parts of Baltimore into a police state while doing it, but the majority of Baltimoreans seem content with that.

When O'Malley proposed "zero-tolerance" policing during his first campaign, he was criticized even then. He knew it would raise concerns, but he instituted the policy anyway and got results. Some would say that adopting a controversial strategy, taking the criticism and getting results smacks of good leadership.

The O'Malley record on education is, at best, questionable. He has already said he was virtually asleep at the switch when departed schools chief executive Carmen V. Russo was running the system and running up a $58 million deficit.

O'Malley acknowledged that he couldn't get information from Russo about the system's budget or human resources. He 'fessed up to being frustrated about getting "basic numbers" out of Russo.

We didn't hear this from O'Malley, mind you, until Russo was gone and the damage was done. But while our mayor was getting dissed by Russo, he didn't turn his dudgeon on her. He saved it for Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy after she refused to prosecute a case in which police lost evidence.

When it came to Jessamy, O'Malley was loud. Very loud. Publicly loud. He said Jessamy needed to "get up off her ass."

It would be nice to hear some of our mayor's anger directed at somebody who actually works at North Avenue school headquarters rather than at federal judges, state's attorneys and governors.

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