No magic bullet for schools

All mayoral candidates running on promise to improve performance, but means are limited

August 27, 2007|By Sara Neufeld | Sara Neufeld,Sun Reporter

Second of three articles on issues in the campaign for mayor

Virtually all of Baltimore's mayoral candidates have made improving the public schools a central tenet of their campaigns, and with good reason: Voters rank education as one of the city's two most pressing issues, second only to crime.

Most of the seven Democratic candidates trying to unseat incumbent Sheila Dixon have proposed overhauling the way the system is governed, replacing the existing school board either with an elected board or with mayoral control.

But under any governance structure, it is the system's chief executive officer - not the mayor - who runs the daily operations of the schools. And none of the campaign promises amounts to the silver bullet necessary to fix the problems that have beset the city schools for decades, from a low graduation rate to an ongoing special education lawsuit.

"Currently, it's difficult to put direct responsibility on the mayor when the mayor does not have the day-to-day responsibility," said Donald C. Fry, president and chief executive officer of the Greater Baltimore Committee, a prominent organization of business and civic leaders.

Under the existing structure, the mayor's power is limited to appointing the school board along with the governor and signing off on the annual operating budget.

Yet in every election cycle, mayors campaign on the successes of the city's schools, and their political rivals take them to task for educational failures. In last year's gubernatorial race, then-Mayor Martin O'Malley campaigned on the city's rising elementary school test scores. Then-Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., whom O'Malley defeated, backed a failed plan for outside takeovers of 11 middle and high schools.

There's no dispute that the health of a city and the health of its public school system are inextricably intertwined. And a large part of any mayor's job is making the city a place where families will come and stay - and the quality of public schools is often a key factor in those decisions.

For years, young professionals have moved to the suburbs when the time came for their children to enroll in school. Those with financial means, including O'Malley and Dixon, have sent their kids to private schools.

Baltimore has a handful of well-regarded public schools that keep middle-class families living in the city. They include Roland Park Elementary/Middle, Mount Washington Elementary and a crop of elite magnet high schools: Polytechnic Institute, City College, Western High and the School for the Arts. In the past few years, some of the city's new charter schools - public schools that operate independently - have also drawn families with the means to go elsewhere.

In the coming years, the city is aiming to attract some of the thousands of people who will be moving to Maryland as part of the nation's reshuffling of its military bases. Andres Alonso, the new chief executive officer of the city schools, recently told a subcommittee studying family recruitment that its plan should focus more on improving city education.

In a Sun poll last month of likely voters in the Sept. 11 Democratic primary, respondents asked to grade the city schools gave the system an average mark of D-plus, with 42 percent selecting D or F.

More than four in 10 of the poll respondents said the mayor should have more control over the city schools, with 20 percent saying they like the current structure, 19 percent saying the state should take over, and 20 percent unsure.

Until a decade ago, the Baltimore school system was an agency of city government, and the mayor had ultimate responsibility. Then in 1997, the city reluctantly ceded partial control to the state in exchange for increased funding - a structure that many of Dixon's challengers contend has left neither party accountable. When the school system suffered a financial meltdown in 2003, state officials blamed the city for failing to monitor the schools adequately, and the city blamed the state.

Now, City Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr. - who was in second place to Dixon in last month's poll of likely primary voters - wants to return to mayoral control, a popular move in many big cities in recent years.

"Under mayoral control, you will have accountability," Mitchell said in a recent interview, calling the city-state partnership a "farce." He said he advocates a system similar to New York City's, where a chancellor reports to the mayor and the school board serves in an advisory capacity only.

But some education advocates say that reverting to mayoral control is unrealistic - and it didn't work the first time Baltimore tried it.

In the system's $1.1 billion budget for the current fiscal year, the state is paying $818 million, compared with $208 million from the city and $138 million from the federal government. That makes the state's share of the budget the largest of any jurisdiction in Maryland.

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