Lawmakers Vote to Block Md. Schools Takeover

By Nick Anderson and John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, April 1, 2006

The Maryland General Assembly voted yesterday to block a state move to seize control of long-struggling Baltimore schools, highlighting political uncertainty behind efforts to carry out the No Child Left Behind law.

The Democratic-led legislature's lightning action, on lopsided majority votes, came just two days after the Maryland State Board of Education voted to order new management for 11 Baltimore schools. Lawmakers argued that the state should have more respect for local control. The issue now moves toward a veto fight with Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R).

The developments in Annapolis illuminated a potential vulnerability in the federal education law: Enforcement of rules on testing and achievement in the schoolhouse often hinges on politics in the statehouse.

For that reason, the outcome of the Baltimore schools clash has consequences for the entire Maryland framework for rating schools and leveraging improvement. That system has drawn praise from the Bush administration and independent monitors.

Yesterday, incoming Prince George's County schools chief John E. Deasy alluded to these stakes in his first appearance in Upper Marlboro since he was hired to lead the state's second-largest and second-lowest-achieving school system.

"Prince George's County is not Baltimore City," Deasy declared, drawing an outburst of applause from a large crowd in the school board chamber. He said the county, with dozens of schools on a state watch list for persistently low test scores, is on "a different trajectory." Its student achievement, he said, is on the rise.

Deasy, who takes office May 1, added that one of his top priorities would be turning around eight Prince George's schools that could be next in line for a state takeover. "Are we worried about this issue? Absolutely."

In many ways, Deasy's goal is exactly what authors of the federal law intended. Raising student achievement helps local school officials escape the humiliation of receiving the ultimate penalty in public education -- state takeover.

Maryland has brandished the threat of a state takeover for more than a dozen years. Six years ago, state officials seized control of three low-performing elementary schools in Baltimore and hired Edison Schools Inc. to run them. Those schools have fared well on state reading and mathematics tests in recent years.

Maryland is just one of 14 states, according to the newspaper Education Week, that include state takeover as a possible penalty for low-performing schools. Virginia does not. The District's school accountability system varies from state models.

This week, Maryland set a precedent for enforcement of No Child Left Behind, according to experts who track the law. The state board voted to seize control of four high schools and force Baltimore to find new management for seven middle schools. All of the targeted schools had been on one state watch list or another for at least nine years.

The U.S. Education Department praised the state board for "taking historic and decisive action on the side of Baltimore's students."

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