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Baltimore stakeholders should lead the way in reforming troubled schools

April 06, 2006|By DIANA MORRIS, THOMAS E. WILCOX AND ROBERT C. EMBRY JR.

Last week, the Maryland State Board of Education, at the behest of Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick, voted to turn the operation of four Baltimore high schools over to third-party entities beginning in fall 2007. This action is surprising and disturbing for all of us who are committed to the achievement of children in the city. The State Board of Education's precipitous decision to accept Ms. Grasmick's recommendations provided no opportunity for public comment from those who care most, are best informed and are most directly affected.

The city public school system and Baltimore parents, leaders, students and other concerned residents had no chance to contribute and were cut out of the process with no explanation. Thankfully, the General Assembly took immediate action by approving a year's moratorium of the state's takeover and providing the opportunity to move forward with more-thoughtful, but no less urgent, plans.

Although you would never know from the state's high-handed action, over the last four years, Ms. Grasmick and the State Board of Education have partnered with us to implement Baltimore's Blueprint for High School Reform.

In 2001, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation chose to invest $12 million in the reform of Baltimore's "zoned" high schools. Baltimore philanthropies contributed another $9 million, and the city and state signed on formally as collaborative partners in this ambitious venture.

In fact, Baltimore's foundations agreed to be part of this initiative in large part because of Ms. Grasmick and her staff's expressed enthusiasm for the plan and their offer to be a full partner in the process. The state board's unilateral and politicized action jeopardizes future investments from national foundations, just as Baltimore is developing an increasingly strong profile with national funders and programs.

To date, this initiative has opened six innovation high schools run by third-party not-for-profit operators with school funding comparable to other city public high schools. Also, five large neighborhood high schools have been broken up into smaller schools.

Test scores and the climate are improving at all schools, but particularly for students at the innovation high schools run by nonprofit operators such as the Johns Hopkins University, Replications Inc., Coppin State University, Baltimore Freedom Academy Inc. and the Mayor's Office of Employment Development.

High school attendance is at its highest rate in over a decade, and the graduation rate has increased from 42 percent to 59 percent since 1996. Three of the high schools named by the state - Patterson, Northwestern and Frederick Douglass - were next to be reformed. The last - Southwestern High School No. 412 - is in its final stage of phasing out and will be closed as approved by state Department of Education; why it appears on the state list is a mystery.

Given that two state Education Department representatives actively participate on the High School Steering Committee, which meets regularly, recommends operators and reviews plans for the high schools, it is surprising that there has been no discussion of the department's dissatisfaction or intentions regarding the remaining three high schools to be restructured.

Nor was there any other course of action recommended by the department at these meetings, including discussion of the department's new mandate to Baltimore to institute a high school curriculum "with demonstrated success." If the state has such a curriculum, why hasn't it told the city about it?

Further, in the interest of seeing that every public resource goes directly to the educational needs of Baltimore's children, we would like to better understand the prospect of engaging for-profit operators as managers of schools. There are significant implications that need to be considered before private operators are brought in to run schools.

The state Education Department's six-year experience with Edison Schools is an example of how for-profit operators can divert substantial amounts of public monies away from public education. An independent consultant concluded that the state contract with Edison to run three city elementary schools is drawing over $5.6 million from other city schools each year. As a for-profit company, Edison posted retained profit of nearly 16 percent of the total per-pupil funding in fiscal year 2005.

As for the course of action for city high schools, we have several recommendations based on our four-year experience of working closely with the city school system and the state Education Department.

First, we urge that these schools be run by contractors (preferably not-for-profit organizations) that are selected through a competitive review process run by the school system. Given the school district's success in starting new high schools run by outside operators, there is every reason for the school district to continue this effective reform effort.

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