Bill Would Block State Takeover of Baltimore Schools

By John Wagner and Nick Anderson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, March 31, 2006

The Maryland General Assembly moved swiftly yesterday to block a state-ordered seizure of 11 low-performing schools in Baltimore, maneuvering in dramatic fashion to pass legislation by this weekend to thwart the will of the State Board of Education.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) said lawmakers were angered that Wednesday's board actions took place without any advance notice. And he said the actions, proposed by State Superintendent of Schools Nancy S. Grasmick and supported by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R), smacked of politics, because Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley is seeking the Democratic nomination for governor this year.

"People wonder if [O'Malley] weren't running for governor, would this action have even taken place, and in this manner?" Miller said. "This is raw politics at its worst, because it involves our schoolchildren."

Emergency legislation that would postpone the state intervention in Baltimore for a year was introduced yesterday in the Senate and House by Baltimore lawmakers. To speed up passage, the provisions were later added to another bill affecting Baltimore schools already nearing passage.

Democratic leaders predicted that the amended bill would pass both chambers today and land on Ehrlich's desk by evening. That would allow lawmakers enough time to attempt an override of an expected veto before adjourning April 10.

Ehrlich said he was stunned that lawmakers would seek to postpone steps -- authorized by the federal No Child Left Behind law -- designed to improve schools with long track records of failure.

"I'm not going to sentence another generation of kids to dysfunctional schools," the governor said. "We have one school system that's not cutting it."

The state board ignited the controversy with a series of votes to intervene in the Baltimore schools, including an order to turn seven middle schools over to new management -- as public charter schools or under other arrangements -- and a state takeover of four high schools, to be run by independent contractors..

The board actions set a precedent for enforcement of No Child Left Behind. No other state, experts say, has cited the law to justify taking over the operation of local schools.

In an interview Wednesday, Grasmick sharply denied a political motivation, calling the suggestion "a smokescreen of the greatest magnitude." She said she did not consult Ehrlich before deciding upon her recommendation to the state board, whose members are appointed by the governor.

Derailing the intervention in Baltimore, Grasmick said yesterday, could also reduce the state's authority to act elsewhere. The state's school accountability system, highly regarded outside Maryland, "has never been subject to petty partisan politics," she said. "It's been left to professional educators and a dedicated policy board."

Anticipating the public outcry, board members and Grasmick pointed to statistics showing that dozens of Baltimore schools are persistently performing poorly.

Test scores in elementary grades have risen in recent years, But achievement in middle and high school grades has stagnated. Overall, scores remain the lowest in Maryland. State education officials said thousands of Baltimore schoolchildren are in jeopardy of failing to meet new graduation requirements that kick in for the class of 2009.

Several Republican senators objected to yesterday's maneuvering. "This whole process is so contorted it's almost laughable," said Senate Minority Leader J. Lowell Stoltzfus (R-Somerset).

Some Democrats said they were reluctant to let the legislation move forward, citing a litany of problems facing Baltimore schools.

Sen. P.J. Hogan (D-Montgomery) told colleagues that "part of me" agreed with the state board's action. But he said he was also troubled that the board took its action without a process visible to the public. "Personally, this is the last moratorium, the last extension I'm going to give" to Baltimore schools, Hogan said.

Edward L. Root, the state board president, questioned whether the lawmakers opposed to the board's action were satisfied with the status quo. "If you saw those test scores, you could understand our concern," Root said.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company