Ehrlich focuses on schools

Campaign ad watch

August 31, 2006|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN REPORTER

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. intensified his criticism of Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley's handling of the city schools in a new advertisement that began running in the Baltimore area yesterday. It is his fifth consecutive advertisement on education and repeats the claim of his two other critical ads: that Democrats have rebuffed his efforts to fix a failing school system in the city.

What the ad says: With haunting piano notes in the background, a female narrator says that "many Baltimore schools are in chaos" but that "Martin O'Malley and the legislature stopped the governor from helping." Newspaper headlines showing similar words appear on the screen.

"They wanted more time, but as Baltimore children start school, nothing has changed. Highest dropout rates, lowest attendance and lower standards," the narrator says.

"Bob Ehrlich has a different approach," the narrator says, as the music becomes more upbeat. "Higher standards. Increase student safety. Get the best teachers. Raise, not lower, expectations, because every student should have the opportunity to succeed."

The facts: Ehrlich's ad refers to opposition from O'Malley and Democratic lawmakers to state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick's plan for the state to take control of 11 chronically failing middle and high schools in the city. The plan, which Ehrlich supported, would have turned them into charter schools or given them to corporations or nonprofit groups to manage.

However, similar takeover plans that have gone into effect in other parts of the country show no clear record of improvement. And a report this week by the U.S. Department of Education found that fourth-graders in traditional public schools outperformed their peers in charter schools on reading and math tests.

As a whole, Baltimore schools have the worst test scores in the state, but they have improved over the last several years, and some city schools rank among Maryland's best. According to state Department of Education statistics, the high school graduation rate and middle and high school attendance rates have improved since O'Malley took office in 1999.

The claim of "lower standards" in the ad refers to a recent decision by the Baltimore school board to lower the passing grade from 70 percent to 60 percent. The change put the city's requirements in line with other jurisdictions in the state. Ehrlich opposed the move; O'Malley supported it.

Ehrlich's agenda in his first term was not heavily focused on education, though he provided most of the money called for in a landmark school funding initiative passed in 2002. In his first four years, he introduced five education-related bills. One, a public charter schools bill, passed. The other four were variations on last year's "Public Education Bridge to Excellence and Public School Construction Act," his bill to legalize slot machines to benefit K-12 education. They all failed.

Ehrlich delegated the development of his administration's education policy to a commission headed by Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele. It called for more charter schools, merit pay for teachers and other market-driven reforms. Ehrlich introduced no legislation in this year's General Assembly session to enact its proposals.

This week, he said he would put money next year toward a merit pay system and a leadership academy for principals.

Analysis: The ad is the first in which Ehrlich mentions O'Malley by name, and it is more strongly negative in tone than his previous commercials. It also continues his relentless focus on education.

This ad takes a two-pronged approach. First, it attempts to convince voters that O'Malley can't be trusted to lead Maryland's education system. Second, it conveys the message that Ehrlich is a change agent whose priorities are in line with those of Marylanders.

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