Should state take over city schools?

Political turf battle must not stand in the path of sorely needed changes


April 06, 2006|By ANDY SMARICK

Despite the furor it's caused, the state's plan for overhauling 11 Baltimore schools is unquestionably the right thing to do.

Recognizing that these schools have failed too many kids for too long and that the city is unable to fix them, state Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick and the Maryland State Board of Education have decided that it's time to act.

But some city leaders have launched a turf war, framing the issue as an assault on Baltimore's authority and independence. This isn't true.

Several years ago, a private entity, Edison Schools Inc., began managing three struggling city elementary schools, and the sky didn't fall.

But even if city leaders truly resent losing these schools, that still shouldn't stop the state's plan from moving forward. This isn't about the pride or prerogatives of adults. It's about the future of thousands of disadvantaged boys and girls.

Under the plan, Baltimore would effectively lose control of 11 schools. The state would take over four high schools and contract with a third party to operate them, and the city would be required to convert seven middle schools into charter schools or turn over their operation to other entities.

But after passionate lobbying from Baltimore's leaders, the legislature passed a bill to thwart the plan. Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has promised to veto the legislation, but there are enough votes in the legislature to override his veto. It is hoped that some courageous, independent legislators will change their minds and support the state's effort.

These schools were chosen for such dramatic action for a clear reason: Not only are they among the state's lowest-performing schools, but they also have been that way for years. Each has been in "school improvement" - the state's category for the most troubled schools - since at least 1997. Because of their continuous failure to make adequate progress, federal law requires that each be restructured.

When put in human terms, the results are heartbreaking. Fewer than 15 percent of students at these high schools pass the state's English exam. Two-thirds of eighth-graders at these middle schools fail to reach proficiency on the state's reading test, and 85 percent fail to reach proficiency on the math test. These students need rigorous, high-performing schools immediately. They can't afford to wait for the city's promises of improvement to materialize.

But waiting is precisely what some Baltimore leaders recommend. Their hurriedly passed legislation would prevent the state from acting for at least a year. They offer no substantive remedies, only charges that boil down to, "Leave us alone; we just need more time."

The state is right to question the city's ability to bring about the type of change needed. Not only have these 11 schools been struggling for nearly a decade, but the city has a total of 54 schools that are so low-performing that they must be restructured. Moreover, the State Board of Education is requiring Baltimore to rewrite its "master plan" for school improvement by October because the current version is inadequate.

The state's plan offers the opportunity to breathe new life into these schools and the communities they serve. It would mean new principals, new teachers, new programs, new curricula and, most important, new expectations about what's possible. U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings has heralded the plan and, according to The Sun, declared herself "president of the Nancy Grasmick fan club."

In truth, though the plan has great merit, there is no magic to it. The daily management of a successful urban school is difficult, but turning a dysfunctional urban school into a successful one is even harder. While the plan has enormous promise, substantial work would be needed to make it successful. So we need to shift our attention away from whether and focus all of our energy on how.

Turning these schools over to third-party managers is a necessary condition for success, but it's not sufficient. In addition to making policy decisions about who would run the schools, how much autonomy they would have and how they would be overseen, more-nuanced issues must be addressed, such as which operators would be the best fit for particular communities and how to engage parents.

We also must decide how to integrate this work with the other education efforts in the city, such as the growing charter school movement, the Edison Schools partnership, the New Leaders for New Schools partnership and the plan to close underused buildings.

Finally, how would we use other states' mixed experiences with school interventions to inform this project?

Without a doubt, these 11 schools need fundamental change on the double. "Wait another year" isn't a strategy, it's an excuse. While the state's plan hurts feelings and bruises egos, Baltimore's children need bold action.

If the city's leadership has the right answers, it has the opportunity to prove it by turning around its 43 other failing schools. In the meantime, the city's legislators should vote against a veto override and then work hand in hand with Ms. Grasmick and the State Board of Education to ensure this effort is a success.

Andy Smarick is the chief of staff at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools and was a member of the Governor's Commission on Quality Education. His e-mail is

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