No hiatus for schools

April 11, 2006

Now that the General Assembly has voted to override Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s veto of a one-year moratorium on the state's proposed takeover of 11 Baltimore schools, no one should be resting on any laurels. Though state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick and the state Board of Education overplayed their hand in moving to take responsibility for four high schools and forcing the city school system to make major management changes at seven middle schools, there's no question that many low-performing city schools need help. Both sides should pull together to raise achievement levels for students.

State education officials say that their attempt to have third parties run the 11 schools was out of long-felt frustration over nearly a decade of low test scores. But their surprise action set off angry reactions, particularly from state legislators and local residents. And it isn't as if city school officials have ignored the problem or the state hasn't been involved while the decline continued.

That's why the state's proposed action seemed oddly abrupt. Three of the four high schools for which the state wanted to assume responsibility are already slated for major overhauls as part of an ongoing high school reform effort. The state has been a part of that effort for four years now, but seemed to ignore some of the progress that has been made during that time.

Similarly, the middle schools on the state's list have also undergone some recent management changes. And city schools CEO Bonnie S. Copeland wants to devote more than $20 million in the 2006-2007 budget that the school board will consider tonight to help the lowest-performing elementary and middle schools, including those targeted by the state. City school officials should understand the importance of reducing class sizes, providing more math and reading coaches and mentoring new teachers in those schools.

While the state's takeover attempt has been rightly thwarted, some other ideas to turn around failing schools - including new curriculums and holding administrators and local academic officers more accountable - have merit and are already on the agenda of city school officials. Perhaps both sides need a brief cooling-off period, but it shouldn't take a year - or the nearly 18 months the state sought - to implement changes that will boost student achievement. The clock starts ticking now.

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