Maryland Acts to Take Over Failing Baltimore Schools
By Diana Jean Schemo
Ohanian Comment: So now the question is: Which for-profits will want to move in? The mayor and assorted community activists say the move is politically motivated. Oh, surely not. Not in an election year.
BALTIMORE, March 29 Invoking the federal No Child Left Behind law, the Maryland school board voted today to take control of four Baltimore high schools with chronically low achievement and strip the City of Baltimore from direct operation of seven more middle schools.
Mayor Martin O'Malley of Baltimore, with city school officials, held a news conference Wednesday to protest a state takeover of failing schools.
In approving the request of Maryland's superintendent of schools, Nancy S. Grasmick, a longtime advocate of the school standards movement, the state board took the most drastic remedy provided under No Child Left Behind, one reserved for schools that have failed to show sufficient progress for at least five years.
It is the first time that a state has moved to take over schools under the federal law, according to the federal Education Department, which praised the vote. One of the board's 12 members opposed the state takeover of the high schools, and one member was absent.
By taking a step that other states have so far taken pains to avoid, Maryland guaranteed that its experience would be watched closely by other states, many of which are likely to face the same tough decisions in responding to failing schools as the law's testing regime expands in coming years. The takeover goes into effect in July 2007.
"Clearly, Maryland is leading the way in terms of state actions in dealing with schools with low test scores," said Jack Jennings, president of the Center on Education Policy, which has closely tracked state responses to No Child Left Behind. He said the state would now have the onus of showing that it could bring improvement. "The buck stops with the state now," Mr. Jennings said.
The state and city have long struggled over Baltimore's troubled school system, which has been plagued by poor test scores and deteriorating buildings.
The high schools designated for takeover here one with only 1.4 percent of the students passing the state biology exam and another with only 10 percent passing the algebra exam have failed to show improvement for nine years, said Ronald Peiffer, Maryland's deputy superintendent for academic policy. That is longer than No Child Left Behind, President Bush's signature education law, has even been in existence.
In addition to the high schools, seven middle schools are to be taken away from the direct operation of the Baltimore city school district, and will be reopened as charter schools or taken over by other entities universities, nonprofit groups or for-profit private companies but will remain under city supervision.
City officials and community leaders were enraged by the move, accusing the schools chief of bad faith, of failing to deliver needed resources and of playing politics.
"This is unprecedented," said Mayor Martin O'Malley. "No other state superintendent in the history of the country has ever tried to do what Dr. Grasmick is trying to do in this election year." Mr. O'Malley vowed that the city would do all it could to fight the takeover, "whatever it takes."
The issue is particularly charged in Maryland, where the governor's race is likely to pit Mayor O'Malley, who is seeking the Democratic nomination, against Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican. In his last race, Mr. Ehrlich asked Dr. Grasmick to be his running mate, an offer she turned down.
Mr. Peiffer, the deputy superintendent, said politics were not a factor. "Some of these schools have been failing for 12 years under three different governors," he said. "Regardless of when you do this, there's going to be somebody, there'll be a governor, there'll be a mayor and there'll be a cry of politics. What you have to do is to do the right thing."
The No Child Left Behind law seeks to have all students reach proficiency in reading and mathematics by 2014 and threatens public schools with sanctions if they do not adequately improve performance. Last year, 27 percent of schools in the nation failed to make adequate progress, according to preliminary Education Department figures.
While Baltimore is roughly on a par with many other struggling urban systems, standardized tests have been in used there since well before No Child Left Behind became law in 2002. That has created a longer record of school performance.
"Not too many states came into No Child Left Behind with as many schools involved in intervention as Maryland did," Mr. Peiffer said. As states build longer records of testing, he said, "they are going to have similar discussions about alternative governance."
Maryland's action is not the first time that a state has stepped in to take control of troubled schools. Ohio officials for a time took over the Cleveland school district, and New Jersey has taken control of schools in Newark in the past.
But this is the first time that a state has taken over schools using No Child Left Behind, which sets targets for improvement and lays out stiff penalties for falling short of those goals. Ray Simon, deputy federal education secretary, said Maryland "should be commended for taking historic and decisive action on the side of Baltimore students."
In Arkansas, where officials invoked state law to take over three districts for fiscal mismanagement, the schools commissioner, Ken James, said he might make the same decisions as Dr. Grasmick in a few years. Several schools have shown inadequate improvement for four years now, he noted.
"If they consistently show no improvement and are not able to turn the tide, that will be one of the potential situations that we face here in a couple of years, " Mr. James said.
Diana Jean Schemo
New York Times
INDEX OF NCLB OUTRAGES