City schools
Stuart, Baltimore: How can the mayor of Baltimore whine about the state taking over 11 failing Baltimore City schools? It is about time that the state stepped in to take some dramatic steps to improve the failing educational system in Baltimore City. This is the same school system that "lost" $60 million.

Nitkin: Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick say that state intervention is needed in these troubled schools, and that the poor performance as measured by test scores there cannot be allowed to continue. But city leaders say the state did not communicate with them before announcing the takeover.

More substantively, they say that the city has improvement plans in place -- paid for in part with foundation dollars and approved by the state -- for the high schools on the list, and that city schools are heading in the right direction.

Mary Lewis, Baltimore: Why is it that city officials in the mayor's Cabinet are required to live in Baltimore City but not required to educate their children in public schools? How can the mayor justify his reasoning for never having sent his own children to city schools?

Nitkin: While many cities have residency requirements for their top employees, a "public education" requirement would be of questionable legality. Many elected officials prefer to send their children to private or parochial schools -- including both Mayor Martin O'Malley and Ehrlich (who also went to private high schools themselves). They do so knowing they will have to answer questions about why they did not select public schools for their children.

Davis Malloy, Baltimore: There has been a lot of bickering on both sides about the proposed state takeover of some of the city schools. One of the big arguments against the takeover has been that the city schools are improving and they just need more time. Most of the arguments I have seen have been talking about the improvements the city schools have been making across the board.

What I want to know is how are the schools that are proposed in the takeover performing in relation to the rest of the schools? Are they showing the same improvement? Or are opponents of the takeover using the citywide numbers to skew the argument? Personally, I think the "partnership" model is a joke and only enabled both parties to claim credit for the good and point fingers for the bad. We have seen the city run the schools into the ground, and the "partnership" make[s] it worse, with no accountability. I think we owe it to the children to see what state-run schools can accomplish. Will it work? I don't know, but I don't think it can be any worse.

Nitkin: This is from Sara Neufeld, our city education reporter:

"The improvement the school system has seen in test scores has been in the elementary schools, and all 11 schools targeted for takeover are middle and high schools. The school system readily acknowledges that performance in middle schools is very weak. System officials and the mayor talk about the improved graduation rate in the high schools, but not improvements in test scores.

The 11 schools have the longest low performance over time in the system. All have failed to meet state standards, first under the [Maryland School Performance Assessment Program] and now on the [Maryland School Assessment], since at least 1997. All 23 of the city's middle schools had very low test scores last school year.

For example, at Thurgood Marshall Middle -- one of the 11 schools -- 79 percent of eighth-graders failed in reading and 99 percent failed in math. Citywide, 60 percent of eighth-graders failed last year's reading test and 81 percent failed the math test. Those averages are even lower if you look at the performance of just the middle schools, since scores are higher, on average, at the 30 K-8 schools, but the state doesn't break it down that way.

Citywide, 22 percent of students last year passed the state algebra test, which as of 2009 students must pass to get a high school diploma. At Frederick Douglass -- a high school targeted for takeover -- 4.8 percent of students passed the algebra test."

BGE rates
Cate, Baltimore: Please explain why there can't be a rollback of the [Baltimore Gas and Electric Co.]/Constellation split. If they were again one company, wouldn't the price of energy be less, since a middleman's markup is then eliminated? Barring that, what about forcing BGE to become a publicly owned company through some kind of "eminent domain" legislation? It just seems that private ownership of utilities is a bad idea in general. No one should be making a profit for supplying a necessity of life (heat, lights, etc.)

Nitkin: It would be difficult to turn the clock back as you suggest. As part of the 1999 deregulation plan, BGE sold its power plants to Constellation and became an energy distribution company. To return to a regulated or public model, BGE would have to buy back the plants, and -- if your suggestion is carried out -- the public would have to come up with the money for the purchase of the plants and the company.

Paul Adams, our utilities reporter, says this would require the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission relinquishing control of the former BGE plants, which it now oversees. That would be unlikely. Some lawmakers in Annapolis are talking about this, but it's a decision that won't be made for a long time -- if ever.

A reader: It seems that the same environmental turmoil from Hurricane Katrina and civil unrest in the Middle East that has caused gas prices to more than double over the last several months is also the reason electricity rates will increase after the rate caps expire. Why haven't the politicians that have attacked Constellation Energy and BGE also attacked the Exxon Mobil's of the world?

Exxon has recently reported record profits greater than any American company in history. A 72 percent increase in electricity seems reasonable in comparison to the gas-price increase. Is this purely a political ploy in an election year or are the politicians really concerned with the public well-being?