- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 21, 2004

Back in April 1997, the Maryland General Assembly passed Senate Bill 795, which dictated what was supposed to have been a sweeping package of fiscal reforms for the Baltimore City Public School System (BCPS). In exchange for $254 million in additional state funding, the legislature passed, and Gov. Parris Glendening signed into law, a 50-page bill ordering changes in the way Baltimore schools operate. These included a new nine-member Board of School Commissioners jointly appointed by the mayor and governor. Yet, with more funds, a huge drop in enrollment and additional oversight, Baltimore schools remain as troubled as ever — and are in need of another state bailout.

“Architects of the reform were to entrust a $700 million budget, 14,000 employees, 182 schools, and 109,000 children to these managers with top-flight backgrounds,”according to the BCPS Web site. “Willingness to use the state’s wealth to help the city was sheer prudence — for the sake of the children. What could be more important than that [?]”

Seven years later, the 90,000-student system remains in chaos. With an $894 million operating budget, it has run up a $116 million cumulative deficit since the 1997 reforms — including a $58 million budget gap that must be closed to pay bills before June 30. None of this should have come as a surprise to anyone familiar with the way the system handles the taxpayers’ money. “Accountability in the budget process is weak to the point of non-existent,” the Greater Baltimore Committee noted in a report last year. “This appears to be a cultural problem pervading the entire system including management.” The financial situation for the schools is so bleak that Robert Neall, a former state senator from Anne Arundel County who has been brought in to be the school system’s financial adviser, talks openly of stiff-arming school vendors in order to keep paychecks to teachers from bouncing.

Despite some recent improvements in test scores, city schools are beset by problems. An estimated 30,000 students attend failing schools, and violence is a chronic problem at the junior high and high school levels. Gov. Robert Ehrlich, in consultation with the Democratic leadership in the General Assembly, has tentatively agreed to lend the school system approximately $42 million to pay its bills through June — one of the largest bailouts ever of a state institution. In exchange, Baltimore school officials would have to agree to much more intrusive state monitoring of its expenditures.

What’s missing from this picture? It does not include the option of some form of school choice, such as vouchers or tuition tax credits for private schools. That’s a tragedy, because we’ve seen how, in city after city, private schools provide low-income children, in particular, a much better education in a safer environment at a fraction of the cost. We suspect that Mr. Ehrlich would be amenable to such an idea. But it faces a serious political roadblock in the form of General Assembly Democrats, who are beholden to the teachers’ unions.

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