Legislative rebuke

March 31, 2006

Maryland's General Assembly moved quickly yesterday to head off the Maryland State Department of Education's attempt, proposed by state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick, to take over 11 middle and high schools in Baltimore. In short order, legislators devised changes to a school bonding bill that would impose a one-year moratorium on the state's action.

The legislature plans to vote today, and it should pass the amended bill. The moratorium would uphold the integrity of the educational process and represents a resounding rejection of Ms. Grasmick's heavy-handed treatment of Baltimore, the city's school officials and its students.

Before the session ends, the General Assembly may also consider whether its approval should be required for any school restructuring by the state education department. But the immediate concern is the measure before the House and Senate that seeks to undo this week's maneuver by the state.

The attempted takeover has stirred up a frenzy of resentment and frustration within the city, while also raising broader concerns about local control of schools and blatant election-year politics. Under the state's proposal, day-to-day management of four high schools and seven middle schools in Baltimore would be turned over to third parties, such as nonprofit or for-profit groups, shifting overall responsibility for the high schools to the state, while allowing the city school system to maintain control of the middle schools.

Baltimore is an easy target because it has more schools in various stages of state-mandated improvement than any other school district, with Prince George's County a not-too-distant second. But while test scores at the designated schools have been dismal for several years, city school officials were starting to make significant changes.

That clearly wasn't good enough for Ms. Grasmick, who indicated that she was tired of waiting for improvements. But her proposed remedies, which were much more sweeping and intrusive than had been anticipated, raised questions about her motives.

The bill as amended would prohibit the state from restructuring and removing schools from the direct control of Baltimore's Board of School Commissioners. The prohibition would be in effect for a year from this past Tuesday. It's a sound idea, because it would give both sides a chance to step back from the confrontation, and it would de-emphasize the politics by putting the state's plan on hold until well after the November elections. It offers time for full deliberation and gives the city a chance to move forward with its own improvement plans in the meantime.

That this measure has come before the House and Senate two days after Ms. Grasmick's dramatic takeover attempt shows what a stunning political miscalculation she has made.

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