Taking aim at city schools

Campaign Ad watch

September 19, 2006

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s new ad running on Baltimore television revisits a familiar topic: city schools. It is his sixth consecutive ad in the Baltimore media market to focus on schools and the fourth to criticize Ehrlich's Democratic opponent, Mayor Martin O'Malley, for his stance on education issues.

This time, Ehrlich criticizes O'Malley over his reaction to a decision by the city school board to lower the passing grade for students from 70 percent to 60 percent.

What the ad says: The commercial begins with Ehrlich speaking into the camera, saying that the city school board recently voted to lower passing standards for students.

"Martin O'Malley supported this measure. I think it's outrageous," Ehrlich says.

The governor says that two of three city schools are performing so poorly they are on a federal watch list.

"That must change, and it starts with keeping standards high and schools safe," Ehrlich says. "While some support the status quo, I think it's time for change right away, and that's just another difference between us."

The ad ends with a video clip of Ehrlich and his running mate, Disabilities Secretary Kristen Cox, shaking hands with supporters while a woman's voice says, "Bob Ehrlich - changing Maryland for the better."

The facts: The Baltimore Board of Education voted this summer to lower the passing grade for students to put its policy in line with those of nearly all the state's other school systems. School officials said the different standards put city students at a competitive disadvantage in college admissions.

O'Malley said at the time that he supported the change because he saw it as a matter of aligning the grading scale with those in other districts, not changing the city's standards for the level of mastery students need to achieve. O'Malley and others pointed out that students still have to pass various assessment tests.

The city school board voted to raise the standard to 70 in 1999. Frederick County schools did the same thing shortly thereafter, but they have also reverted to a 60 percent standard. Ehrlich has raised no objections about the change in Frederick, though that county has far fewer troubled schools than the city does.

Members of the city school board, which approved the change, are appointed jointly by the governor and the mayor. After the passing-grade change, Ehrlich refused to reappoint the chairman and two other members supported by O'Malley and has asked the State Board of Education to commence a search process for new nominees.

The State Department of Education listed 92 city schools - slightly less than half of the district - as being identified for improvement, corrective action or restructuring after the 2004-2005 school year, the most recent year for which data for all grades is available.

The Ehrlich campaign says it is counting an additional 34 schools that failed to make adequate yearly progress under the No Child Left Behind Act for one year, bringing the total to about two-thirds of city schools.

The state lists 77 schools in Prince George's County as being in need of improvement, plus more that have failed to make adequate yearly progress. Ehrlich has not singled out that system for criticism.

Analysis: This is the first ad in which the governor personally criticizes O'Malley by name, but it is in general less harsh than previous negative ads he and the mayor have run.

The message highlights an unusual aspect of this governor's race: Although Ehrlich is the incumbent, he has sought to portray himself as a change agent and O'Malley, a challenger, as representative of the status quo.

Andrew A. Green

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