Control Of 11 Schools Seized

By Nick Anderson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 30, 2006

BALTIMORE, March 29 -- The Maryland Board of Education voted Wednesday to place 11 Baltimore public schools under independent management in a shake-up of this city's school system that could be a harbinger for struggling schools in Prince George's County, the District and elsewhere.

The state intervention provoked outrage from an array of Baltimore officials, and the president of the city's school board indicated the city may fight the action in court.

But state Superintendent of Schools Nancy S. Grasmick cited authority under state and federal law to justify one of the most sweeping state interventions in local school affairs in the country since No Child Left Behind was enacted in 2002.

"What Maryland is doing will be a precursor to what a number of other states will do," said Jack Jennings of the Center on Education Policy in Washington, which tracks the federal law.

The state board's vote provides one answer to a question that looms larger every year under a federal law that requires nearly all students to move steadily toward proficiency in reading and mathematics by 2014: What should be done with schools that keep missing academic targets year after year?

Many schools in Prince George's and the District fit that profile.

In Baltimore, 54 schools are at the last stage of a series of enforcement sanctions for failing to make adequate progress under No Child Left Behind. Only a few have hopes of escaping those sanctions this year. Some have spent a decade or longer on the state's targeted list of schools that need improvement.

For 11 middle and high schools, state officials declared a crisis demanding immediate action. The board voted 11 to 0 to order the Baltimore school system to convert seven low-performing middle schools to independently operated charter schools or seek private contractors to run them. It voted 10 to 1 for the state to seize control of four high schools and find independent management for them, with board Vice President Dunbar Brooks dissenting.

"We're talking about 10,000 students," Grasmick told the state board. "Ten thousand students that are in schools that are persistently low-performing. . . . We have an obligation under the law and ethically to address that situation on behalf of the children."

The board also ordered the state to revise key parts of its secondary school curriculum and initiate a personnel review that could lead to dismissal of senior officers.

City schools chief Bonnie S. Copeland said she was disappointed by the state's action because the 85,000-student school system already is implementing measures to improve secondary schools, including an initiative to break up large high schools to form smaller learning communities.

The chairman of the Baltimore City Board of School Commissioners, Brian D. Morris, accused the state of seeking to usurp local control without consulting the city. "They have not bothered to sit down with their partners," Morris said.

Neither Morris nor Copeland indicated the city school system would comply with the state's orders. "We're going to explore every option," Morris said. "It's not outside the realm of possibility that we will be fighting this out in court."

Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, a Democratic gubernatorial candidate, also pledged to fight the intervention, telling reporters that the state is trying to "kick our kids around like a political football."

But Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) said "all extraordinary means" are justified to help improve "a system that is this dysfunctional."

If Baltimore is a notable arena of combat over No Child Left Behind, Prince George's could be next. The county system, with 133,000 students, is listed in need of improvement by the state and will be forced to take "corrective action" if it misses this year's testing targets. Only Baltimore is now at that stage in Maryland.

Incoming Prince George's schools chief John E. Deasy called the Baltimore developments "enormously significant." He added: "The state is dead serious about stopping the decline of low-performing schools. That only intensifies the work that lies ahead of us."

Staff writer John Wagner contributed to this report.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company