School aid faces threat

Blocking takeover could imperil funds for state, U.S. says

General Assembly


Raising the stakes in the dispute over education in Baltimore, the Bush administration is warning that $171 million in federal aid to Maryland could be in jeopardy if the General Assembly blocks a state attempt to take over 11 failing city schools.

A letter outlining the threat was sent to state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick as Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. is set to veto a bill that would place a one-year moratorium on the state takeover. The Assembly could override a veto.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller called the letter an empty partisan threat and vowed that there would be no retreat.

"This is all orchestrated by the right-wing Republican Party," he said yesterday. "They think we're too stupid to know that the phone lines go straight from Governor Ehrlich's office to Michael Steele's office to President Bush's office to the Republican Senate committees to the congressional campaign committees."

The threat would do nothing to prevent the General Assembly from overturning Ehrlich's veto, Miller said, adding: "We're going to override the veto. And I'm going to push that button extra hard."

The letter, dated yesterday, was written by Deputy Education Secretary Raymond Simon, who issued a statement last week in support of Grasmick's action.

Much of the letter is a technical explanation of what actions a state may take against a local school district to adhere to the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

After a school has failed to meet state standards for five years, the state can reopen the school as a public charter school, replace the staff, turn over the school to an independent entity or take it over, among other options.

Simon also said in the letter that if the state is prevented by the district from carrying out its responsibility under the federal law, federal funds are in jeopardy.

Little threat seen

Ralph S. Tyler, the Baltimore city solicitor, said he does not think the letter is much of a threat because the state could impose options other than a school takeover on the city to comply with the law.

And, he said, the moratorium would last only one year.

"Contrary to the representation of the governor, it does not threaten the loss of federal funds and, significantly, the letter is not from the Department of Justice or the legal office of the Department of Education," Tyler said.

Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. said Monday that the moratorium bill is sound and would not prevent the state from carrying out its responsibility under the federal law. He also concluded that federal funds are not in jeopardy.

Paul T. Hill, a University of Washington professor and director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, said Simon's threat might be serious.

Test case

The state's move to take over the 11 schools is the first such action under the four-year-old federal law, and Maryland has become the test case for how the law should be enforced.

Allowing the Maryland legislature to block the action, even for a year, could embolden other states not to take the law as seriously, Hill said.

Many other states are less enthusiastic about the law than Maryland is.

The letter "is clearly meant to be a threat to strengthen Grasmick's hand and the governor's," Hill said. "What they are trying to signal is that they like what Grasmick did. They don't want the precedent of the state officer using that authority and having it slapped down."

If federal officials allow the legislature's action to stand, he said, "then you have to decide what parts of [No Child Left Behind] are dead letters."

Hill said federal education officials probably would withhold federal funds only as a last resort. Asked a week ago about the possibility of withholding funds from Maryland, Education Secretary Margaret Spellings said in an interview that "we are far from that."

The money the department says could be in jeopardy is Title I aid that goes to schools with large numbers of poor children. It does not go to schools in wealthier areas.

`Political ploy'

"It's a classic Democrat-Republican confrontation, with the schoolchildren of Baltimore City the pawns of a political ploy," Miller said.

Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden, the Baltimore Democrat who is largely responsible for pushing the moratorium bill through the legislature last week, said yesterday that with an opinion from the state attorney general backing him up, he is not worried about losing federal money.

"They think we're on sound legal footing and are putting it in writing," McFadden said, adding that the letter from Simon seemed to be more hypothetical than definite.

"It says `may' jeopardize funds. It does not say `shall,'" he said. "And on the second page, it says very clearly `potential jeopardy.' They're so angry, they're pulling the trigger based on a `may' and a `potential.'"

Before the letter was received, Ehrlich and state Comptroller William Donald Schaefer used yesterday's Board of Public Works meeting to defend Grasmick's decision to take control of the schools and to criticize the Baltimore officials who have opposed her.

"What is being done to Nancy Grasmick is a crime, but what is being done to children in the name of politics is an even greater crime," Ehrlich said.

"I don't know what we're celebrating other than complete dysfunctionality and the triumph of partisanship and silliness over kids."

Schaefer said Grasmick is working "against the biggest obstructionists I've ever known. ... No person should be subjected to what she's subjected to by the students, the teachers, the parents and especially the legislature."

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