Maryland's 2005 student test scores show a vexing achievement gap among racial and economic groups. This year nearly half of the state's eighth-graders were less than "proficient" in math, and black eighth-graders were more than twice as likely as whites to fail the reading test.

Most of the state's education problems are concentrated in two of its 24 districts -- Prince George's County and Baltimore City. These two jurisdictions contain nearly 75 percent of the state's chronically failing elementary and middle schools and have test-failure rates that approach twice the state average.

This year in Prince George's, for example, nearly half the elementary and middle schools failed to make "adequate yearly progress," the standard for improvement under the federal No Child Left Behind Act; 59 schools failed for at least the second year in a row.

In Baltimore the story was worse. More than half of the city's schools failed to make adequate yearly progress, including all the city's traditional middle schools. Having racked up five consecutive years of failure, 53 Baltimore schools face restructuring, the ultimate sanction required under federal law.

The human toll is staggering: By eighth grade, 60 percent of the city's students fail the state reading test, and 80 percent fail the math test.

Since the early 1990s Maryland has had an accountability system to identify and fix struggling districts and schools, and while it has succeeded on the first objective, it has fallen gravely short on the second. Many schools identified as low performers a decade ago remain on similar lists today.

During this time, the state also standardized the curriculum, reduced class sizes and increased teacher pay. Most significant, though, was the passage of the massive Thornton Plan, which drastically increased state education spending, with the lion's share directed to Baltimore City and Prince George's County. Yet the current system appears incapable of improving chronically failing schools in those jurisdictions. A new approach is needed.

First, the state's charter school law should be rewritten to allow the creation of a large, diverse set of public schools that operate autonomously while being held accountable for results.

When Maryland's charter school law passed two years ago, some people warned that it would constrict the development of schools and provide them little independence, and they were right. The school boards in Prince George's and Baltimore -- precisely the jurisdictions that need charter schools the most -- have been hostile to the idea. An improved law, modeled after successful examples in the District, Michigan and California, would spur the development of a robust charter sector.

Second, a publicly funded voucher program is needed. Low-income families with children in a chronically failing school should be provided a per-pupil allotment of funds that could be used to pay tuition at any higher performing school -- public, private or parochial. This would provide low-income families the same right affluent families enjoy: selecting the best school for their children.

Powerful interest groups will fight such a plan, but this is a matter of justice for the children stranded in Prince George's and Baltimore City's failing schools, who overwhelmingly are black and Hispanic. The primary barrier to equitable life opportunities is an inadequate education. Supporters of these reforms aren't giving up on public education, as sometimes has been charged. But while working to fix existing institutions, they believe that everything possible must be done to help those children who are suffering under the current arrangements.

-- Andy Smarick

is a member of Maryland Governor's

Commission on Quality Education and

a founding board member of the KIPP Harbor Academy charter school in Annapolis.