Md. acts to seize 11 city schools

Grasmick seeks control under No Child Left Behind

Baltimore officials furious, contend move is political

March 29, 2006|By LIZ BOWIE AND SARA NEUFELD | LIZ BOWIE AND SARA NEUFELD,SUN REPORTERS

Maryland schools chief Nancy S. Grasmick plans to ask the state school board today to seize control of 11 failing Baltimore middle and high schools - an action that is believed to be the first school takeover in the nation under the controversial No Child Left Behind Act.

Grasmick's bold move is the most recent shot in a nine-year power struggle over control of the city school system and comes in the midst of a contentious governor's race between Mayor Martin O'Malley and Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., both of whom have sought more influence over Baltimore schools.

Under Grasmick's plan, the board would put four high schools, including historic Frederick Douglass, into the hands of a company or nonprofit group that would report directly to the state. Seven middle schools would become charter schools or be operated by a third party but would remain under the ultimate authority of the city school board.

The changes would take effect in 18 months. All 11 schools have posted at least nine years of very poor test scores.

"If the state of Maryland takes over schools in Baltimore, that is ground-breaking in terms of No Child Left Behind," said Jack Jennings, president of the Center on Education Policy, a national group that has closely monitored the federal law. "To my knowledge, no state has gone that far. State agencies are very reluctant to take over schools."

City school officials were furious late last night. "This political [expletive] is eroding our ability to educate the children of our city," said Brian D. Morris, chairman of the city school board.

In the gubernatorial campaign, Grasmick has clearly aligned herself with Ehrlich, who had sought to make her his running mate in the 2002 election. She has again been mentioned as a possible candidate for lieutenant governor but has said she doesn't want the job.

Grasmick dismissed any suggestion that her actions are politically motivated. "When you go back to 1994 and look at schools that were identified [as failing] ... that spans three governors," she said. "I don't see how you put that in a political context."

The proposed state action goes beyond the 11 schools. Grasmick will ask the board to order a housecleaning by June 1 of high-level city administrators who oversee the schools. The state also would essentially dictate what would be taught in middle and high school classes by requiring the school system to use another Maryland system's curriculum for core courses.

With state managers already overseeing nine school system departments, the state's actions would further strip city schools chief Bonnie S. Copeland and the Baltimore school board of power.

State officials also are expected to tell the city that unless test scores improve this year, the school system will have to do far more to improve nine other elementary, middle and high schools that have been designated as failing by the state. The state won't tell the city what to do, but the options include requiring all teachers to reapply for their jobs or turning those schools over to a new entity to run.

Morris described the city's dealings with the state in harsh terms, saying it was harmful to children's ability to get a good education. "The relationship as it stands doesn't lend itself to significantly increasing the trajectory of progress of the school system," he said.

Morris said last night that he did not have all of the specifics of the proposal but that "there appears to be significant fiscal impact."

Grasmick was appointed to her post in 1991 during the administration of Gov. William Donald Schaefer, and she is one of the longest-reigning state superintendents in the nation. Recently, she has become more aggressive in using her authority.

In 2000, she used a state law to take control over three elementary schools; the state hired a for-profit company, Edison Schools Inc., to run them. And she suggested to Baltimore Circuit Judge Joseph H.H. Kaplan in a hearing several years ago that he move to take over the system and appoint a receiver.

She has considered her options for several months. Under the Maryland statute adopted to enforce the federal No Child Left Behind law, she would need either General Assembly or judicial approval to take over the entire system. In an interview this week, Grasmick said she had decided not to seek court approval, saying the courts are "too timid."

The schools the state is moving to put under third-party control have been failing to meet standards at least since 1997. The four high schools - Frederick Douglass, Northwestern, Patterson and Southwestern No. 412 - have miserable scores on the High School Assessments, tests that today's ninth-graders have to pass to get a high school diploma. Only 10 percent of Patterson students passed the algebra test last year.

The prospect that small numbers of students would graduate from those high schools unless major changes were made was one of the factors Grasmick said she considered.

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