No magic bullet

July 14, 2006

The disappointing news that test scores at three Baltimore elementary schools taken over by the state have dropped significantly poses a couple of questions: If the Maryland State Department of Education has failed to ensure improvements in pupils' academic performance, how can it lay claim to competent guardianship over 11 other city schools it wants to manage? And what do you do with a failing school that's already been taken over by the state?

The state assumed control of the schools - Furman L. Templeton, Gilmor and Montebello - six years ago and turned them over to Edison Schools Inc., the country's largest for-profit operator of public schools. Despite some classroom improvements, report cards based on the pupils' math and reading test scores reveal performance levels sadly below state and citywide averages. Scores at one of the schools, Gilmor in West Baltimore, are so poor that the elementary might not meet federal standards.

Last spring, state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick, wielding authority she said was given to her under the federal No Child Left Behind law, announced that the state would take over 11 additional underperforming city schools. The takeover attempt quickly turned into a political showdown among lawmakers in Annapolis. City legislators successfully halted Ms. Grasmick's plans for a year. Whether the issue comes up again in the next legislative session likely depends upon who wins the governor's race. It is an election year, and the true motives behind the planned takeover and the subsequent legal roadblock can be debated all summer. And state education officials can continue to insist that their plans for handling other schools include alternatives to for-profit companies such as Edison. In the meantime, this much is clear: Lousy test scores at three state-controlled elementary schools aren't helping Ms. Grasmick's case.

Arguments for privatizing government functions often raise legitimate and practical issues - expediency, economic savings, a higher degree of professionalism. But privatizing public schools is nothing more than an act of desperation. It's the step taken after all other efforts have failed. Is it based on a flawed premise, that money and outsider expertise can solve the problems hounding some of our poorest schools?

There are some school privatization success stories around the country, but what matters here is that Baltimore is not among them.

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