Political games

June 21, 2006

As soon as word got out that Baltimore schools CEO Bonnie S. Copeland was stepping down, the political fangs emerged. Showing some of the same gamesmanship that has marked his handling of the BGE electricity rate increase, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. immediately declared: "I am disappointed that Baltimore City's leadership continues to fail its students. I share the frustrations of city parents who expect and deserve accountability in the school system that serves their children."

The words may not make sense, but the political overtones are unmistakable - and unfortunate. Mayor Martin O'Malley and Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, who also inanely cited Ms. Copeland's departure as evidence of a school system "under siege," are making a run for Mr. Ehrlich's job. And since school achievement in Baltimore has been a focus of the campaigns, the governor and Mr. Duncan have routinely tried to castigate the school system and implicate Mr. O'Malley in any management lapses. But who are they trying to blame - the school board or Ms. Copeland - for the agreement to seek new leadership for the schools?

Mr. Ehrlich, in particular, should know better. The school board has been jointly appointed by the governor and the mayor since 1997, giving Mr. Ehrlich some shared responsibility and accountability for its actions. If the governor is so worried about serving the city's schoolchildren, he would push for even a down payment on the $400 million to $800 million by which the state has shortchanged city schools since 2000, according to Baltimore Circuit Judge Joseph H. H. Kaplan.

During her three-year tenure, which is average for superintendents of major urban school systems, Ms. Copeland concentrated on bringing the system back from the brink of a $58 million deficit and making academic improvements. She can take some comfort from the latest state assessment results that show city students in grades 3 and 7 making greater gains than the statewide average in reading and students in grades 3, 4, 5 and 7 outstripping average statewide gains in math.

The fact that other students, particularly sixth- and eighth-graders, posted more modest gains or slight declines will be an ongoing challenge for the designated interim CEO, Charlene Cooper Boston - a longtime city schools official who has most recently been in charge of schools in Wicomico County - and Ms. Copeland's ultimate successor. To continue making progress, they need support, not political rhetoric, from everyone who recognizes that improving the prospects of all Baltimore students improves the prospects for the state.

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