Fundamentally wrong

March 30, 2006

State schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick's audacious move to take over 11 Baltimore schools is more than a slap in the face to city school officials. It's a risky - and unnecessary - escalation of the ongoing struggle between the state and the city over how best to fix a chronically ailing school system.

Ms. Grasmick insists that the move is not political (despite the fact that she has been aligned with Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and has been directly critical of Mayor Martin O'Malley, who wants Mr. Ehrlich's job) - but her timing and method belie that claim. On Tuesday afternoon - well after Ms. Grasmick had briefed reporters on the plan - she got around to telling city schools CEO Bonnie S. Copeland, less than a day before the Maryland State Board of Education rubber-stamped the proposal.

What's more, this is being done in an election year with little or no consultation with city school officials, state legislators, interested reformers, parents or the public. Even if the politics extend only to a tug-of-war between state and city education officials, Mayor O'Malley, City Council members and concerned community leaders who rallied behind city school officials yesterday are right to take umbrage at the state's pre-emptive action. If helping Baltimore's students is really the goal, this is definitely not the way to do it.

Ms. Grasmick's proposal would give the state more direct responsibility for four high schools and seven middle schools that have produced low test scores for at least nine years. Granted, that's a long time to allow students to languish in poor-performing schools. The state's concern for students who are increasingly required to pass standardized tests is reasonable. But for almost a decade, the state has had a formal, if ill-defined, role in managing the city's schools, so it must shoulder its share of the blame for failure. And now Ms. Grasmick does not seem to be offering any proven solutions.

She wants a third party, either a nonprofit or a for-profit company, to be brought in to run the affected schools. The plan seems particularly ham-handed for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that it would not take effect for 18 months; if the situation at these schools is so dire, why take a year to plan? Why not work more immediately with school officials to turn things around? The failure to coordinate underscores the intensely fractured nature of the relationship between city and state education officials.

Another questionable aspect of the proposal is that since 2002, the state has been a partner with the city as well as national and local foundations to reform Baltimore's high schools. Representatives of Ms. Grasmick have regularly attended meetings where plans to break up large, zoned schools and replace them with smaller learning academies have been discussed and implemented. Some of the high schools that the state now wants to take over are among the last to be dismantled, and various restructuring options are being weighed, based in part on extensive community consultation. By proposing to let a third party run those schools, under state authority, Ms. Grasmick has trashed that consultative process and put those schools' futures further in limbo.

Her proposal may also undermine city school officials' early efforts to engage in a comprehensive overhaul of middle schools, where student progress has declined. Middle school slump is a statewide, even a nationwide, problem. Baltimore school officials are focusing initially on changing leadership, including at most of the schools on Ms. Grasmick's list, and converting traditional middle schools into K-8 schools, where students have scored better on state assessments.

The middle school effort is meant to sustain gains that the system has made in the elementary schools, where the percentage of Baltimore students showing proficiency in reading and math on state tests for each of the past three years has increased in nearly every grade.

Central to any discussion of the state taking more responsibility for city schools is the issue of what impact such an action would have on resources for the rest of the system. At three city schools that are already being run by a for-profit management company, student performance has generally been good, but the per-pupil allocation of about $11,000 per student is deducted off the top from the state's funds to the rest of the school system. How does Ms. Grasmick intend to pay for her new proposal without harming the majority of students?

There's no question that the city school system needs help, and the state should be a natural partner. Instead of extending a hand of collaboration, Ms. Grasmick has chosen to give the back of her hand to the city's schools - and the children they serve.

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