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April 6, 2006

No Winners Here - Particularly the Students

John W. Ashbury

What is happening in Annapolis is an outrage, no matter the side of the political spectrum on which you sit. The Democrat leadership is ramming its agenda down the throat of the governor. And the governor is just as intractable. And the business of every Maryland citizen is stymied.

Perhaps the most egregious example of a failure to work together is the situation with the Baltimore City Public School System. Recall that the State Board of Education on March 29 declared that the state would be taking over 11 failing schools in that beleaguered city. What is anathema are that so many legislators responded in anger rather than seeking positive corrective measures for the abysmal education being provided those students.

The schools in question - four high schools and seven middle schools - have been failing for many years, with no improvement on the horizon. Under the "No Child Left Behind Law," such a situation jeopardizes federal tax dollars that support education in the city.

You may be wondering just how these schools are failing, especially when you recall that Walkersville Middle School was put on the "failing school" watch list a couple of years ago due to the attendance record of two special education students. All of the 11 schools poised for a state takeover have been on a "watch list" since at least 1997 and some longer than that.

A caller to The Ron Smith Show on WBAL (1090 on your dial) radio last week identified himself as a teacher in one of the failing high schools. He said that 30 percent of the girls in the school were already mothers and that another 15 percent of the girls were pregnant. He pointed to a daily absentee rate of 38 percent, and said that more than 60 percent of all students came from single parent homes.

It sounded like an excuse for the failure of the school, but it really pointed to a breakdown of society. Can we expect the school system to take its precious few educational dollars to address societal ills? It happens right here in Frederick County, too, particularly in meeting unfunded mandates for social reforms, a burden wrongfully placed on education budgets statewide.

Other facts about these Baltimore schools have surfaced since Dr, Nancy Grasmick, state superintendent of schools, announced the planned takeover last week.

Students at the four high schools have a pass rate of less than 10 percent on the required math achievement test required for graduation; and less than 20 percent on the English test. It means that 80 percent of the students will not graduate - unless they improve their scores dramatically.

At one of the Baltimore high schools, 78 percent of the seniors graduated last year, while only 8.8 percent of them passed the state algebra test. This is possible because passing the test was not a requirement to graduate last year.

In the seven middle schools slated for takeover, only 25 percent of the students passed a standardized math examination.

So, what would you expect to be the response of the state's elected "leaders?"

You got it! They passed legislation to thwart the takeover - with no provisions to actually improve the performance by the students. Supporters say the law will give the Baltimore City Public School System a year's reprieve - a chance to address the problem.

Well, where have they been for the last 10 years, and why haven't they taken the political winds out of the situation? Instead of solving the problem in their middle and high schools - like they apparently are doing at the elementary level, they position themselves to again use their students as political footballs to improve their chances for re-election. Or in the case of Mayor Martin O'Malley, to improve his chances to replace Gov. Robert Ehrlich in January.

At least that is the way they see it. It could very well backfire.

You may also recall that Baltimore City rejected a state offer to bail it out of a school system financial crisis a couple of years ago. City officials feared state "interference" in school affairs.

It seems in this corner that the state should have a far greater say in what goes on in Baltimore City schools than it does. At the present time, Baltimore City taxpayers contribute only 19 percent of the city's school budget, while state taxpayers dole out 67 percent of the costs. And we're talking about a nearly $1 billion budget.

It matters little what Baltimore's delegation to Annapolis, Baltimore's school officials, and Mayor O'Malley and his administration implement to address the ills of the 11 schools the state proposes to take over. It won't reverse what is happening there in time to prevent the state's assumption of responsibility for them next year. All it does is make political pawns of 90,000 students.

The timing of the State Board of Education's action couldn't have been worse. The reaction of the legislature couldn't have been more inappropriate. And the fact that the new law passed last Friday really doesn 't address the genuine problems these schools face is an abomination.

And what would be the situation today had the state board simple delayed the announcement of its decision until next week, or even to its May meeting. Where would these "outraged" legislators be then?

It all relates to the election this fall. The governor is expected to seek re-election. Mayor O'Malley has already announced his bid to unseat Governor Ehrlich. And all 188 seats in the General Assembly are up for challenge.

The breakdown of cooperation between the Democrat leadership and the governor's office is catastrophic. Gone are the days when statesmen disagreed on basic principles, but had the good sense to negotiate solutions for the benefit of those they represent.

It is easy to imagine that had Cas Taylor been re-elected in 2002 and remained as Speaker of the House of Delegates, things would be far different in Annapolis these days.

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