Sun's coverage of new school year mixed with politics

Public Editor

September 03, 2006|By Paul Moore | Paul Moore,Public Editor

The Sun's Aug. 29 coverage of the first day of public school for Baltimore City and most of the region was thorough. It reported on the transfer of 4,300 city students to different schools, the opening of new schools in Baltimore and Howard Counties, teacher staffing levels throughout the area and physical plant problems at several schools.

This year, the articles and accompanying photos also noted the extra attention that politicians - especially gubernatorial candidates Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley - paid to this late-summer rite of passage. As everyone who watches television, reads newspapers or listens to the radio knows, public school education in Maryland - especially in Baltimore City - has become the biggest issue in this year's governor's race.

The Sun's recent reporting on education has been analyzed and debated in the context of Ehrlich and O'Malley's battle over who has the best plan for the city's public schools and who is to blame for its continuing problems.

When the news broke that the city had decided to reduce the number for a passing grade from 70 to 60 - which the school board and O'Malley said simply aligned the city with other Maryland school systems - Ehrlich and others decried it as an example of deteriorating public education in Baltimore. The governor then refused to reappoint three city school board members who are supported by O'Malley.

Sun columnists Greg Kane (who is a product of Baltimore's public schools) and Jean Marbella have since examined the grading change issue from different perspectives. Dan Rodricks, while criticizing O'Malley for exaggerating successes in Baltimore, noted that earlier statements by Ehrlich and recent comments by running mate Kristen Cox that statewide test scores had improved everywhere except in Baltimore were wrong. The Sun recently reported that statewide test scores for ninth-graders in algebra, biology and government had improved in every county and in Baltimore City.

Two other recent articles - the Aug. 18 front-page story "Candidates swap barbs on schools" and the Aug. 19 analysis "A look at Ehrlich's school criticism" - generated a number of responses from readers.

Donna Foertsch on the Aug. 18 story: "Why do I get the feeling that the article points out all of O'Malley's criticism of Ehrlich's barbs, along with support comments by Sen. Mikulski and many others, while the article used only a few snippets from Ehrlich and several of his supporters to answer O'Malley's barbs?"

Bruce Smith on the Aug. 19 piece: "Your article is simply a political statement in support of O'Malley. Ehrlich's comments on the school system are very accurate. Baltimore's city schools are a joke. If you were being objective, you would point this out in your article. But that wouldn't fit the Baltimore Sun's objective."

Another view came from a Baltimore City schools employee: "I am continually dumbfounded by the comments and criticism from those who know little or nothing about education in urban and poor environments. There are many problems and failures and many of these issues are shared by urban school districts in other states. These occurrences indicate serious problems in the nation's economic, political and educational systems that neither the governor or the mayor can solve alone."

Readers also have reacted strongly to articles such as Gadi Dechter's Aug. 27 story, "Behind city grade change; College-bound students part of the process marked by confusion," which was designed to examine policy decisions in light of the political fallout.

Patrick Groff wrote: "As a teacher and teacher educator, I suggest that the controversy of a `passing' grade for students being 60 versus 70 is much fuss and fury over nothing. It is documented that what is 60 contrasted to what is 70 among teachers varies wildly. This is the reason why standardized achievement tests began."

Baltimore City school teacher Dennis D. Jutras said: "I am mortified by the continued abdication of academic rigor espoused by many member of the city school board. The logic used by individuals in your story makes no sense to me."

In my view, almost any Sun article about city schools written before the November election will reflect political concerns and as such be subject to political interpretation. Nonetheless, reporting on the city school system's administrative structure, as well as stories about class size and issues such as deteriorating cafeteria furniture and broken desks, is just as relevant.

As anyone who has a child in a city school (or any public school) knows, success or failure depends on principals, teachers and parents. A reader and city resident said: "I hope that when this election is over that all who care about making the schools the best they can be can concentrate on doing the work that really matters and stop making political grandstands."

Paul Moore's column appears Sundays.

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