Schools are the issue

let's talk about them

July 30, 2006|By DAN RODRICKS

Democrats can squawk all they like, but that's an effective TV commercial the Ehrlich campaign launched the other day - a multiracial array of men and women, most of them young-parent age, saying Maryland has great public schools while Baltimore has some of the worst, and putting the rejection of a state takeover of 11 of the city's failing middle and high schools at the feet of Democrats.

You can whine - as many did - that there was nothing but heavy-handed politics in the Ehrlich administration's bid in March to take over the 11 schools. Some saw Rovian conspiracy in a Bob Ehrlich-Nancy Grasmick plot to make Martin O'Malley and the legislative leadership look like narrow-minded control freaks who refused to let Republicans appropriate their issue, dooming city kids to more failure.

Whatever.

Nearly five months after the General Assembly passed a law that prohibited state takeover for a year, this is how it looks: The Republican governor wanted to act quickly to help city kids, but the Democratic legislature - and the Democratic mayor of Baltimore- said no and asked for more time. "More time?" asks one of the men in the Ehrlich spot. "More time for what?"

Democrats have been running the city and the schools forever, and while there have been some recent improvements in the lower grades, there's still too much failure throughout the system.

Marylanders believe public education is the No. 1 issue in the state, and I assume we mean improving it.

And there's no place where it needs more improvement than in Baltimore.

In polls, Marylanders trust Martin O'Malley to do a better job of that than Bob Ehrlich.

That's probably not because of anything O'Malley has done specifically. (Since 1997, the mayor's power over schools has been split with the state, and O'Malley's main focus as mayor has been crime reduction.) But public education has been the traditional domain of Democrats; people generally see O'Malley's party as caring more when it comes to funding and supporting public education.

Ehrlich has challenged that.

In fact, on the matter of Baltimore schoolchildren he seems to have become more focused and sympathetic, even ardent. He talks about this now almost as much as he once talked about slots.

While some of the incumbent governor's claims on funding public education are overstated, particularly as they relate to Thornton commission mandates, he has bragging rights on a list of accomplishments.

But, most important of all, he seems to understand the need to fix Baltimore schools.

Good. It's only the most important issue facing the state of Maryland.

Ehrlich should take this message to his base constituency - a conservative, suburban base that has for too long been on the sidelines of the city school struggle, ridiculing efforts at improvement instead of supporting them, demanding that more be done with less, repeatedly describing the reasons for the failure instead of offering solutions.

As an outsider on this issue - a Republican, not a Democrat, a suburbanite, not a city dweller, a governor, not a mayor - Ehrlich has a special opportunity here.

He should challenge his supporters to join him in smartly and forcefully tackling the city school problem - not only to show up O'Malley and the Democrats but because he believes this is the No. 1 priority in the state.

Fix the Baltimore schools, restore confidence in them as safe and effective places of learning, and over the next 20 years, we can tip the balance toward a greater Baltimore and an even greater metropolitan area.

Provide city kids with an educational experience comparable to what their suburban peers get - support them with the social services they need to counter all the negative forces working against them - and eventually they graduate from high school. They ascend to a better station. As they go, the city goes. As the city goes, the state goes.

Fix the schools and, in time, people will move back to the city in greater numbers, reclaim, restore and stabilize old neighborhoods. A new generation of young adults, more holistic in their thinking and less inhibited by the prejudices that drove their parents and grandparents away from the city, will come to see it as not only a cool place to live but a place to raise families.

If young professionals, affluent empty-nesters, new immigrants and middle-class and low-income families can live here, work here and feel confident in the public schools here, they'll stay here.

The forces of progress and stability will crush the forces of criminality and dysfunction.

The direction of new workers and new jobs into the city - where we could handle another 200,000 residents easily - takes the pressure off the suburban counties, and even the exurban counties, for more housing.

Less housing demand, less development.

Less development, less congestion and more open space.

More open space, less environmental impact on the Chesapeake region.

The next governor needs to be the architect of a long-term master plan for a fast-growing Maryland.

Every conversation I've ever had about that with anyone - liberal, conservative, moderate - runs back to Baltimore. Baltimore is the place that can handle the greatest 20-year population increase with the least amount of trouble. It has become primed for that during the O'Malley years. But everyone agrees: It won't happen without good city schools, K-through-12. The conversation begins there and ends there. Looks like the 2006 gubernatorial campaign does, too. Good.

dan.rodricks@baltsun.com

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