- The Washington Times - Monday, February 7, 2000

In 1989 a Maryland education panel recommended that the state take over troubled schools, meaning schools whose students perform poorly year after year on standardized tests. Four years later, a separate group of education officials began compiling its own list of failing institutions, and by January of 1999 the tally had grown to 97 schools. The file included dozens of schools in Baltimore and several in Prince George's County. Today, with only one of those 97 schools showing academic improvement, the Maryland State Board of Education is taking over literally.

The state board has announced an unprecedented proposal to take control of three underperforming public schools in poor black neighborhoods in Baltimore. The action is but the latest step in Maryland's school reform and the newest twist in the school reform movement to raise student achievement.

Faced with similar problems, many other states tried to tweak existing systems by broadening student choices to include charter schools or, after caving in to politically connected unions, by rearranging flow charts and bureaucratic oversight. Maryland, though, will be the first to hire a private contractor to run its public schools.

The state board's bold plan calls for a private firm to hire and fire faculty from outside the system and teachers unions. Three or four firms, including Edison Schools Inc., which runs a charter school in the District of Columbia, and another company, Mosaica Education Inc., which operates charter schools in Michigan, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, have drawn up proposals. For now, the takeovers will only involve three elementary schools in Baltimore, schools where less than 10 percent of students tested at basic skill levels last year. Next on the list is Prince George's.

Interestingly enough, two state board members from Prince George's, where 12 schools are threatened with takeover by the state, voted against the plan. Both members, Jo-Ann Bell and Reginald Dunn, said they think teachers should be given more time to boost scores. Yet, with test scores on the decline for years, the real issue is not how much time teachers should or should not have. It's how much longer children in these schools can afford to receive less than a real education. The answer is that they can't wait any longer, nor should they have to wait.

For example, in 1998 only 12.3 percent of students at Prince George's Bladensburg Elementary School, 12.7 percent at Doswell E. Brooks Elementary and 12.8 percent for Thomas S. Stone received satisfactory scores on the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program tests. All three schools, which are situated inside the Beltway, were added to the state's troubled-schools list last year. Still, parents and school officials are hoping reforms begun last year will ward off a takeover this year.

Local and state leaders, as well as parents in various communities, have had ample time to help those schools improve on their own. The first warning came in 1989, and it took the state four years to adopt procedures for taking over troubled schools. Public school systems were warned again in 1994, when the first two schools were put on the list. Over the course of the next four years 88 schools were targeted. The state had to step in.

Ideally, public school systems should be run on the local level, where parental interest and influence are greatest. But in the case of the Baltimore, local schools flunked the test time after time and failed tens of thousands of students. Some day they may be able to take the test again, but the state has made clear, and rightly so, they can no longer do so at the expense of children they have served so poorly.

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