Schools' about-face?

September 21, 2006

What a difference six months, a rebuke from the General Assembly and a political campaign make. In March, State Superintendent of Schools Nancy S. Grasmick tried to engineer more state responsibility for 11 poorly performing Baltimore schools. At the time, she proposed turning over some of the schools to third-party managers that could presumably have included Edison Schools, the for-profit firm that is already in charge of three city elementary schools. The state's presumptive takeover, however, was thwarted by the General Assembly and postponed for at least a year.

This week, Ms. Grasmick made a celebratory appearance at the most successful Edison school and proposed returning all three to the Baltimore school system, suggesting that she no longer has the authority to extend the contracts in light of school improvements and the state legislature's action. Ms. Grasmick's apparent turnaround is welcome, but, given her previous willingness to mix educational supervision with politics, her actions raise questions about how much of a partner the state intends to be in improving low-performing schools.

Under Edison's management, the three schools - Montebello, Furman L. Templeton and Gilmor - have had mixed results. Montebello, which was hailed this week for its success, has scored above the citywide average in state reading and math assessments for the past three years. Scores at the other two schools improved for two years, then dropped significantly during the last school year. Despite Templeton's recent setback, it made sufficient progress to stay off the state's watch list. State education officials now feel that with two of the schools doing well or well enough, and all three schools bundled under the same contract, they can no longer step in and negotiate another contract with Edison when the current one expires in June.

That seems almost overly polite for state overseers, who have not hesitated to take city school officials to task for academic lapses such as Gilmor is still experiencing. But now, nine months before the contract expires and in the middle of a political campaign season, Ms. Grasmick has made a curious reversal. Instead of unilaterally trying to toss the three schools back in the city school system's lap, she should be more focused on helping Baltimore school officials ensure that, whether or not Edison is involved, students get a quality education.

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