Shift control of schools? Why now?

July 29, 2008|By JEAN MARBELLA

Test scores are up, and the centralized North Avenue bureaucracy is being busted up. After years of woe - from a massive fiscal crisis to the rotating door to the CEO's office to the bottom-scraping graduation rates - things are finally looking up for the city public school system.

Which is why I wanted to shout "Whoa!" when a wrench came flying out of nowhere this weekend, threatening to wedge itself into the system.

As The Sun reported Sunday, Mayor Sheila Dixon is floating the possibility of taking charge of the schools, which are under joint city-state control. The question is not only why, but why now?

It was just two weeks ago that city schools were celebrating record high performances on the state assessments tests. Both math and reading, every grade level, regular and special-ed students, poor and rich, native speakers and English-as-a-second-language kids, all races - all the scores were up.

It was extraordinarily good news for a long-beleaguered school system, and you can slice and dice it anyway you want - there was talk of how the test was shortened, which perhaps helped students maintain their focus better and led to the better scores - but there's no way you can take this one away from the schools or the students or their teachers.

It was a nice cap to a year of great change in the schools, much of it ushered in by the new CEO, Andres Alonso, who hit town a year ago and quickly and dramatically started shaking up the usual way of doing business. Most notably, he shifted power and resources from central headquarters and gave it to the principals and other school-based staff members.

While Alonso graciously, and correctly, didn't take the credit for the improved scores - he said positive changes were in place before he got to town - it's hard to ignore the energy and sense of mission he has brought to a previously sluggish system.

Which is why Dixon's timing is raising more than a few eyebrows. Does she want to share in the glow of a school system that is seemingly on the upswing? As she noted yesterday, the mayor's office gets blamed for bad school news, even if it doesn't have full control of the system, so maybe it's only fair it should get some of any credit that comes around. Or is the taking over of the schools, and the public way in which she's "exploring" the idea, a sign of displeasure with the CEO?

"I work very closely with Dr. Alonso," she said yesterday when I asked her about this. Dixon, however, pointedly added that the CEO comes from a school system, New York City's, that is among several that have been taken over in recent years by their mayors.

And she did hint both yesterday and in the past that she's a mite concerned about the pace and scope of Alonso's reforms. "You can't come in and change everything," she said.

Similarly, back in June when Dixon was a guest on my colleague Dan Rodricks' Midday radio show on WYPR, she praised Alonso for getting off to a good start but injected a hold-on-a-moment note as well.

"I cautioned him," she said, "not to move so quickly in some areas."

Dixon said she was "getting approached by a lot of programs that are being impacted," offering as an example an after-school program that some principals would have the discretion not to use them even if central office administrators thought it had been successful.

Sounds like some people at North Avenue are a bit miffed at the changes in the works, and maybe they've gotten the mayor's ear.

Maybe, maybe not. But two things are clear: The city school system has long needed a fresh approach to doing things, and that's under way. And it needs to be as free of outside political influences as possible.

The city schools have long been a political football - they became an issue in the 2006 gubernatorial race, for example, and can get drawn into any city-state, mayor-governor tensions. (Or governor-state schools superintendent tensions, for that matter.)

It has long bothered some in the city that the state has some control over its schools, and indeed, it's not a perfect system. But this all came about because of the immense trouble the city schools were in some years back, what with state and federal lawsuits filed against it and a huge fiscal crisis from which it needed to be bailed out.

But now, with the funding ironed out, with the current mayor and governor usually on the same side of things, and with the school system seemingly on a good track, why mess with things? It's time to let the school system continue on its path to reform and leave aside, for now, who is in control of what.

In fact, Dixon herself made much the same argument when asked about Alonso's changes to date.

"We have to give it a chance before you can judge it," she said. "School hasn't started yet. This is a question to ask a year from now."

jean.marbella@baltsun.com

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