- The Washington Times - Monday, August 14, 2006

Baltimore’s struggling public schools have emerged as a key campaign issue in the governor’s race.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican seeking re-election, is airing a TV ad critical of Baltimore high schools that continue to fail under Mayor Martin O’Malley, the leading Democratic candidate for governor.

The governor’s ad faults Mr. O’Malley and the Democrat-controlled legislature for blocking a state takeover of the city’s 11 worst-performing high schools, where “some students are unable to read their diplomas.”

However, the mayor is dismissing the ad, noting improved test scores in city elementary schools and higher graduation rates.

Mr. O’Malley, who does not have direct control of the city’s school system, also is chiding Mr. Ehrlich for bruising school pride in Baltimore.

“I’m proud of the fact that we’ve made really impressive progress in the toughest of conditions,” Mr. O’Malley told The Washington Times. “I think it is sad that the governor, in his desperation, would attack that progress and hold up the lowest-performing handful of schools as if they were representative of a school system of 189 schools.”

Ehrlich campaign spokeswoman Shareese DeLeaver said the ad is not critical of the entire school system, but of leaders who refuse help for failing high schools.

“It is reckless to take credit for the progress in Baltimore city public school system without accepting responsibilities for its failures,” Miss DeLeaver said. “The city has 54 schools in the worst category [in state assessments] and 11 have been failing for nine years.”

Mr. O’Malley and Mr. Ehrlich often have clashed over the city’s schools, which receive millions of dollars in state funding under a 1997 deal that requires the mayor and the governor to jointly appoint the city school board.

The mayor rebuffed Mr. Ehrlich’s offer of a state bailout in 2004 when Baltimore schools teetered on the brink of bankruptcy.

The school system has had a mixed record since Mr. O’Malley took office in 1999.

Scores on the standardized Maryland School Assessment (MSA) have improved steadily in Baltimore elementary schools since 2003.

In fifth grade — the last year of elementary school, which educators consider a benchmark for elementary school performance — the number of Baltimore students with passing scores in reading rose from 44.4 percent in 2003 to 58.7 percent this year. ]

Students with passing math scores increased from 31.3 percent to 53.7 percent this year.

Still, the number of Baltimore fifth-graders who failed the MSA reading and math tests is nearly double the state average.

In Baltimore, 41.3 percent failed the reading test and 46.3 percent failed the math test, compared with 23.4 percent failing reading and 26.6 percent failing math statewide.

The scores are worse for the city’s middle-school students.

In eighth grade, the last year of middle school, 60.6 percent failed the reading test and 78.4 percent failed the math test this year.

The city also has a low graduation rate.

Baltimore schools recorded a 58.99 percent high school graduation rate, compared with the state average of 84.83 percent in 2005, the most recent data available.

Nonetheless, the city’s graduation rate has improved steadily from 42.58 percent 10 years ago.

“There are improvements, but we can’t be complacent about this,” said Ronald A. Peiffer, deputy superintendent of academic policy for the Maryland Department of Education. “We’ve got to keep the pressure up. … The middle schools in the city are not making good gains at all.”

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