Ehrlich focus on city schools

Campaign Ad Watch


Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s first negative advertise ment of the election campaign began running in the Baltimore area yesterday, criticizing the perform ance of city schools and legislators' decision to block a state takeover of 11 middle schools and high schools. It does not mention increases in test scores in the city in recent years, nor does it say how Ehrlich would have improved the targeted schools if the state had been allowed to take con trol of them.

What the ad says: The ad shows video of a series of men and women saying that while Maryland has some of the best schools in the nation, some of the worst are in Baltimore. The speakers say they ap plauded when Ehrlich and the state Board of Educa tion attempted to "fix our schools immediately" but that "a few politicians stopped them."

"They just wanted a little more time," a woman says.

"More time?" a man says. "More time for what?"

The ad does not mention Ehrlich's opponent, Balti more Mayor Martin O'Malley.

The facts: Baltimore schools as a whole lag behind those in other jurisdictions, but in recent years, test scores in elementary schools have risen markedly.

In March, state Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick announced that the state would take control of seven middle schools and four high schools where scores were consistently low and showed no signs of improvement. The schools would then have been turned into charter schools or handed over to third parties to manage. The move caused a general outcry in the city from politicians, parents, stu dents, community leaders and others.

In the following days, the General Assembly approv ed a law that prohibited any state takeover for a year. Ehrlich vetoed the bill, and the Democrat-con trolled legislature overrode him.

The ad makes no mention of Ehrlich's role in city school governance, but a 1997 agreement splits re sponsibility for the schools evenly between the governor and the mayor. The ad refers to Ehrlich and the "independent school board" seeking to take over the schools, but the State Board of Education is controlled by Ehrlich appointees. Grasmick does not owe her post to Ehrlich, but she is a close ally.

Grasmick took control of three of the city's worst elementary schools six years ago and turned them over to for-profit Edison Schools Inc. Test scores in those schools have been inconsistent since and dropped markedly this year. An Abell Foundation re port last fall found that administrative costs at the Edison schools are twice as high for city-run schools, some of which have posted better results in the last six years.

State schools officials said this spring that if they had taken over the schools they wouldn't necessar ily have turned them over to Edison, but the compa ny's lackluster results this year reinforced critics of the state's plan.

Analysis: Ehrlich, the Republican incumbent, is trail ing in the polls and needs to peel away some of O'Malley's support in order to win. Education is the perennial top concern of voters, and one on which Democrats often win elections. But the polls also show the issue could be a soft spot for O'Malley.

Ehrlich faces the tricky task of trying to attack his opponent without tarnishing the nice-guy image that has kept his personal popularity high. He miti gates any potential backlash by not appearing in this ad -- just as his image has been absent in his three previous commercials -- and by launching a rela tively soft attack in which no politicians are criti cized by name.

Ehrlich talks about the schools vote in nearly ev ery speech, and he has said he believes it will be the issue that decides the election. These almost certain ly won't be his last -- or harshest -- words on the subject.

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