Education is the issue, but politics is the subtext

Public Editor

April 02, 2006|By PAUL MOORE | PAUL MOORE,PUBLIC EDITOR

Two words commonly used to describe the Baltimore City public school system - fairly or unfairly - are "troubled" and "beleaguered." And in this election year, the performance of Maryland's fourth-largest but most-visible school system will play a major role in the gubernatorial race.

As Sun education reporter Sara Neufeld said, "Now more than ever, I have to examine the political context behind virtually every story I write, given the power struggle between the city and the state."

Over the past few years the state school board has placed certain city schools under third-party control because they continually failed to meet mandated academic standards.

This continuing struggle intensified Wednesday with The Sun's front-page article reporting that Maryland schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick had asked the state to take control of four Baltimore high schools and seven middle schools because of continued "very poor" test scores. The Ehrlich administration agreed to the takeover plan, which would take effect in 18 months.

City school board Chairman Brian D. Morris was quoted in the story angrily decrying the proposal as politically motivated. Grasmick, who has been mentioned as a possible running mate for Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., denied that politics were involved.

Thursday's stories in The Sun described an even more intense debate over the political ramifications of the decision, including rancorous exchanges between Grasmick and unhappy Baltimore legislators.

Reader and Baltimore resident Louis Mason agreed with the decision to take control of the 11 schools: "What is really sad is that this city has had years to make changes, but instead they just try to protect jobs and therefore perpetuate a clearly broken system."

But John Monahan had a different view: "First the state uses the failures of the city school system to orchestrate a partial takeover. Then, when schools continue to flounder, the state continues to blame the city. ... Next, Gov. Ehrlich and the state school board wait until an election year to take over 11 city schools. Ehrlich becomes indignant when anyone suggests that this is politically motivated. He insists that he is only thinking of the children. ... Both sides need to work together and put the needs of the children first."

Reader passions over another education issue were fanned a few days earlier by two articles written by Neufeld examining perceived threats to several schools that are considered "islands of excellence" in the city system.

A March 23 article reported that administrators had lowered admission standards at Western High School, the nation's oldest all-girl public high school, by accepting freshmen who would have been rejected in previous years. The story also noted that only 25 percent of next year's incoming freshmen at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School met previous admission requirements.

A story the following day reported that some of the most qualified students were rejected by Polytechnic Institute because they listed the school as their second choice on their applications.

The standards set at Western, Polytechnic and several other elite high schools provide tangible evidence for parents and students that a high-quality public school education can be had in Baltimore. Neufeld's articles cast doubt on that prospect, generating significant reactions from readers.

"You are to be commended for your thorough article on the admissions problem for Western High School," said Sandra Wighton, who was principal of Western from 1979 to 1994. "I've been impressed with your `spot-on' objective education reporting."

Reader Beth Casey praised Neufeld's admissions articles but added: "I think there is a danger of many simply seizing on the statistic as the only issue that needs solving."

The Polytechnic story, in fact, gave Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, who opposes Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, an opportunity to criticize the mayor. "This is what happens when you don't put education first," Duncan chided.

In my view, this predictable political quote added nothing substantive to the debate and did not belong in the article.

A few readers complained that the stories did not include enough input from city school officials, including the fact that the changes at Western and Dunbar were made at the request of the schools to keep them fully enrolled.

Top school administrators were in this instance their own worst enemies because they failed to provide coherent and timely information to the media - and their principals and PTA groups.

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