It's time to surrender ego, focus on the kids

April 09, 2006|By DAN RODRICKS

Those who are convinced that Operation Nancy, the proposed state takeover of 11 failing Baltimore schools, is nothing more than a cynical, election-year political move to make Mayor Martin O'Malley, a Democratic gubernatorial candidate, look bad -- hey, I hear you. I can be as cynical as the pastiest, mangiest blogger in the blogosphere. But tell me something: When would such a move not be political? And when did criticism of Baltimore schools become a reflection of the O'Malley administration, or a personal attack on The O'Mayor?

State schools Superintendent Nancy Grasmick's plan to assume control of schools that have been failing dismally since at least 1997 is nothing more than a shot at O'Malley? That's exactly what O'Malley wants you to believe, and it's believable -- but only up to a point.

The problems of Baltimore's schools predate the O'Malley administration -- they go back to at least the Schaefer era -- and while O'Malley might like to take credit for recent advances in some city schools, he's hardly "the education mayor." Since the mid-1990s, the role of the mayor in city schools has been greatly diminished, and O'Malley's mayoral legacy is built primarily on crime reduction and condominium construction, not improving public education.

Sorry, but on schools, for bad or good, The O'Mayor is just backup singer.

Still, the reaction to Grasmick's plan, strongly supported by the Republican governor, has been fierce, particularly among O'Malley fans. They've dismissed Grasmick's idea as political and personal, and looked right past the merits of state takeover and even the reasons for it.

"We did not envision the level of hostility to the point of obscuring the facts about the abysmal state of these 11 schools," David Tufaro, former Republican candidate for mayor and member of the State Board of Education, wrote in a letter to this columnist last week.

Almost alone among Democrats were Keiffer Mitchell and Ken Harris, two members of the City Council -- possible mayors of tomorrow, either of them -- who resisted the rush to shut the door on state takeover. When the General Assembly put a one-year moratorium on the plan, Mitchell was one of the few to ask why. "I don't know what is going to happen in that year," he said. "Just to say, `Well, give it some time while we've got children going through those schools.' ... I say, `We can't wait.'"

Harris, chairman of the council's education committee, said he opposed spending taxpayer dollars on a legal battle the O'Malley administration threatened if the moratorium doesn't stand.

While neither Harris nor Mitchell said he supports state takeover, at least they're questioning the knee-jerk response to it from their party leadership.

Good. It's worth questioning.

O'Malley and others keep pointing to progress that has been made in Baltimore schools within the frame of a state-city partnership -- without a full state takeover. And they're right -- but only up to a point.

As The Sun reported again the other day, in elementary grades, test scores have risen every year for six years in most subjects and grades. The middle schools had some gains some years, but scores have been largely stagnant the past two. The city broke up some high schools, starting five years ago, and opened six new small ones; graduation rates have been rising, dropout rates and school violence falling.

So I asked Grasmick why the state wouldn't continue down this path, in partnership with the city.

Deputy Superintendent Ronald A. Peiffer responded in an e-mail with a performance chart on those six "derivative" high schools that developed out of the breakup. It was pretty sad. The chart showed one of the schools with 5.5 percent of students passing biology and 12 percent passing math. Another school had 9 percent passing algebra, and another had 2.5 percent passing math.

"Because these schools have not been in existence very long," Peiffer said, "we deferred any immediate action on restructuring this year and will monitor their performance with possible action in a future year. However, many of the small-school efforts really do not introduce new or revolutionary methods. Rather, they continue to do the same things as the large schools -- just on a smaller scale. We are more hopeful about some of the innovative schools where the methods are different. Hence, the restructuring we [propose] calls not for something small, but rather for something innovative and based on successes elsewhere."

So Grasmick wants to take control of four high schools and contract with companies or nonprofits to run them. She wants the city school system to contract out the management of seven middle schools.

So, why not?

What has the city to lose, besides control? What's more important, the municipal ego or the education of children? If the state takes over the 11 schools, the pressure is on the state to show results.

I'll say this again: If the Republican governor means what he says, then Robert Ehrlich should be taking his message across the state as he campaigns for re-election. I want to hear him tell voters from Wicomico to Garrett that thousands of school kids in Baltimore are mired in poverty and all the problems associated with it; they need special, sustained attention, and the resources of an entire state, to achieve a real generational break in the long cycle of failure. Despite the setbacks the Democratic majorities in the General Assembly delivered, Ehrlich still has an opportunity to convince all Marylanders that they have a huge stake in the outcome here -- and that Operation Nancy is not just the election-year stunt O'Malley wants everyone to believe it is.

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