Schools' master plan is denied

State board orders city system to rewrite update

vote draws ire of CEO, mayor's office


The state school board voted yesterday to reject the Baltimore school system's updated master plan for school reform - rebuffing the city's efforts to improve its schools without more outside intervention.

While the board did not withhold any state aid, it voted to direct the city school system to spend whatever is necessary to hire an outside monitor to evaluate the implementation of a rewritten plan for at least seven months. The state already oversees special education and related services, as ordered by a federal court.

The vote drew immediate criticism from city schools Chief Executive Officer Bonnie S. Copeland, who insisted Baltimore children are making steady improvements.

All 24 school systems in Maryland are required under the state's so-called Thornton legislation to develop master plans and update them annually; Baltimore's update was the only one rejected this year. Thornton provides for an additional $1.3 billion a year on public education by 2008 in exchange for documentation of how that money is being spent.

"The intent of those dollars is to accelerate student performance, and if that is not occurring, [the city school system] is not in compliance with the intent of the law," State Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick said yesterday as she outlined a slew of data showing dismal student achievement and a failure to show progress toward hiring enough qualified teachers.

The State Board of Education's move prompted outrage from the office of Mayor Martin O'Malley, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for governor and is likely to face criticism during the campaign over schools from his primary opponent, Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, and from Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a political ally of Grasmick.

"Baltimore students and teachers would be better served if Dr. Grasmick just chose to work collaboratively with the Baltimore school system," said Raquel Guillory, a spokeswoman for O'Malley. "Adding more bureaucracy is just not the way to go if you're trying to work with the school system and help the students and the teachers, particularly when we're showing improvement in so many areas across the board."

Guillory said the state should not be requiring the school system to spend money on a monitor when a state judge has found that Maryland has underfunded the city schools by hundreds of millions of dollars.

Top city school officials, including Copeland and board members, did not attend the state board meeting, sending a midlevel administrator on their behalf.

Late yesterday, Copeland issued a statement that said: "The State's review of our Master Plan would seem to indicate that we are not making significant strides in academic achievement. The data show the contrary. ... We are demonstrating the capacity and the ability to make significant progress quickly, and we are confident that progress will continue to be made in classrooms across Baltimore City."

Grasmick gave the system until March to rewrite its 484-page plan, which addresses everything from curriculum to school safety to graduation rates. From March to October, an independent monitor will then evaluate whether the system is doing what it says it will.

Unlike the nine state managers sent by a federal judge to oversee city school system departments affecting special education, the monitor will not be involved in day-to-day operations, but rather will report back to the state on the system's own efforts.

The city schools received $57 million in Thornton money this school year. While Grasmick has the authority to withhold some or all of that money, she said she would only do so as a last resort.

"Hope springs eternal that they will be able to do major revisions," she said.

Baltimore's was the only updated master plan in the state to be rejected yesterday. The state school board voted to approve the plans of 22 school systems. It designated the plan for Prince George's County as "not yet approvable," meaning changes are necessary but the plan does not need to be totally rewritten.

The rejection of Baltimore's plan sparked a debate between Grasmick and Copeland over the progress of city schools.

In a letter to Copeland, Grasmick said the city schools' 2005 graduation rate of 59 percent was more than 30 percentage points below the state standard of 90 percent. In her statement, Copeland said the city's graduation rate was the highest it has been in 10 years, beating the national graduation rates for African-American and Hispanic students.

Grasmick argued that the city schools are failing to put in place academic programs that teach state standards, which children must know to pass Maryland's annual standardized tests. Copeland said in the statement that "Baltimore has aggressively embraced the state-sponsored benchmark assessments."

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