A welcome display of impatience over schools

April 02, 2006|By DAN RODRICKS

Raoul Middleman, one of Baltimore's great artists, teachers and raconteurs, calls himself an "impatientist" with the brush, and if you've ever experienced the glory of his presence - when Middleman paints or talks about his paintings - you quickly get what he means. John Dorsey, the former Sun art critic, once described the impatientist style as "a combination of energy, quickness of mind and the urgent need for self-expression." I think the impatientist spirit has a lot to do with fear of death and the desire to make your time in this life meaningful - for yourself and as many others as possible, as soon as possible.

We don't have enough impatientists making policy in Baltimore and Maryland.

I understand the need to study and ponder. I understand the need for the prudent calculation of political dynamics. I would like a dollar for every report that has been published on Baltimore's problems over the past 30 years - the loss of its manufacturing base, its troubled school system, middle-class flight, crime and drug addiction, the disintegration of neighborhoods, the racial and economic segregation between the inner-city and the suburbs, and the impact of all of this not only on Baltimore but the entire region.

We have accepted failure and loss - generations of kids who became adults who did not finish school, who went to prison, who became trapped in a cycle of poverty concentrated within a few ZIP codes - while the rest of Maryland became one of the wealthiest states in the nation.

Most grown-ups understand these things by now. Elected leaders, in particular, have a grasp on it. They just haven't done much about it.

And citizens throughout Maryland have abided - and re-elected - leaders who haven't done much about it. Most of those leaders have been Democrats, of the middling and neoconservative breeds, barely distinguishable from a lot of Republicans. They are not impatientists. They are, in the main, guardians of the status quo, men and women bogged down in small-picture thinking, making decisions and taking positions that will spark the least amount of controversy and guarantee re-election.

So when Maryland's Republican governor, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., and the long-serving secretary of education, Nancy Grasmick, announced the takeover of 11 failing Baltimore schools - when they, essentially, announced that the nearly decade-old city-state partnership on schools was not working sufficiently - they identified themselves as impatientists.

The response, from Democrats, has been stunning. So many knees jerked at one time you could hear ACLs tear.


If a pathologist could perform surgery and see inside the collective Democratic conscience around here, he might see something called envy.

A Republican with a solid suburban political base saying the failure of Baltimore middle and high schools - read that, poor city kids - was unacceptable? A white guy from Arbutus taking aggressive action to try to fix urban schools with majority black student populations?

How dare he!

"This is about kids who for years and years and years have not received their constitutional rights," Ehrlich said. "It's not about short-term political calculations. It's about a system that continues to receive more dollars and becomes more dysfunctional."

Of course, it's an election year. So the man who wants Ehrlich's job, Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, dismisses the move as politics; he claims Ehrlich and Grasmick are just trying to make him look bad before the September primary.

OK, but ...

Most grown-ups around here don't actually hold The O'Mayor accountable for the city schools. Not really. Not since the sleepy Schmoke era - when there was a partial state takeover of the school system and an infusion of cash from the legislature - has the mayor been seen as an active participant in public education. I've said this before, and it goes back to at least the time of William Donald Schaefer's mayoralty: Fixing the schools was an enormous challenge, and mayors shrugged at what to do about it; they faced plenty of other problems without sticking their noses into classrooms.

O'Malley likes to brag about some of the progress that has been made in some aspects of the city school system and, as his watch commenced in December 1999, he gets to do that. But does he deserve the direct credit?

It seems to me and every other citizen of Baltimore that O'Malley has been in the background on this. He's been focused on other city issues - fighting crime foremost.

So maybe this move by Grasmick isn't about him.

Maybe - dare I say it? - it isn't about partisan politics.

Maybe it's about impatience.

Impatience happens. It can erupt at any time. I think it happened here, and it's a good thing.

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