State education officials are seeking to intervene in Baltimore public schools to address what the state calls "a failure of extraordinary magnitude" in the education of disabled students, a development in federal court that could ripple through the gubernatorial campaign.
Officials at Baltimore City Hall and city school headquarters call the state proposal an unwarranted power play that would undermine local authority.
The tussle over Baltimore schools, the latest chapter in a 21-year-old special education lawsuit brought by disability-rights advocates, is unfolding in legal briefs filed yesterday and last week in federal court. It shows anew the educational and management challenges facing the city's 88,000-student school system.
One of the foremost, according to the Maryland State Department of Education: Many disabled students in the past school year failed to receive legally required services such as transportation, therapy or counseling. State officials term the matter "a crisis," an assertion city school officials dispute.
The confrontation poses a political risk for Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, a Democrat planning to seek his party's nomination next year to oppose the reelection of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R).
O'Malley has influence over city schools, particularly in facilities and financial matters. He engineered a bailout of the school system last year when it faced a sudden $58 million shortfall. He and Ehrlich also share power to appoint the city school board.
The mayor does not have direct control of academic programs. Still, he touts progress in the schools. Baltimore's standardized test scores, perennially the state's lowest, have risen in recent years.
Anything that deviates from that script is potential campaign fodder for the mayor's foes, including his rival for the party nomination, Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan.
"All of the political opponents of O'Malley, including some in the Democratic Party, see anything to do with negative conditions in Baltimore City as an opportunity to blame O'Malley," said Roy T. Meyers, a political scientist at University of Maryland Baltimore County.
O'Malley spokesman Steve Kearney criticized the state proposal to intervene in the management of special education services for Baltimore's 15,000 disabled students. Kearney said the state agency had backed the school system's special education policies in recent years until what he termed an abrupt "flip-flop" in the federal lawsuit.
"The facts haven't changed," Kearney said. "So there's only one reasonable explanation, which is politics."
An Ehrlich spokesman referred questions to state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick. In Ehrlich's first campaign for governor, Grasmick, a Democrat, was mentioned as a possible running mate. Such speculation has resurfaced this year as Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele (R) weighs a run for U.S. Senate.
Grasmick refused to comment on whether she would be interested in joining Ehrlich's ticket next year. She said the lawsuit has dragged on for so long that it has outlasted multiple governors, mayors and superintendents. "Our focus should not be on, 'Is this a political situation?' " she said. "Our focus ought to be, 'What's happening to our children?' "
U.S. District Judge Marvin J. Garbis recently ordered the state agency, city schools and other parties in the case to assess the management of special education programs. The state agency responded last week with a proposal to hire nine experts to help administer special education. The plan would cost $1.4 million annually, state officials said, and would aim to end court oversight within five years.
The state argued that the city special-ed program is in disarray, with rock-bottom test scores. Carol Ann Baglin, an assistant state superintendent, said a sampling of records showed service disruptions within the past year for at least three-fifths of Baltimore's disabled students.
"Children should be able to get to school," state attorneys wrote in a court brief, "and when they arrive at school all the staff needed to teach them should be there and qualified to do so."
Last week, the state suggested that the only remedy other than its intervention would be the appointment of a receiver to administer special education. Yesterday, state attorneys wrote that they were not seeking a takeover, only a court-ordered intervention.
But attorneys for the city schools argued that the court should not give the state a broader role. "Courts are and should be reluctant to take control of school district management and operations away from local authorities," the Baltimore attorneys argued last week. Yesterday, they added that "takeover proposals ignore the state's chronic and unconstitutional underfunding" of Baltimore schools.
Staff writer John Wagner contributed to this report.