With all the trappings of a political campaign, the 44,000-member state teachers union launched a scathing attack yesterday on a proposal to let the state take control of faltering schools and put some of the worst of them in private hands.
Accusing the State Board of Education of trying to "seize" schools and "sell them to the highest bidder," Karl K. Pence, president of the Maryland State Teachers Association, promised a fierce battle whose theme he summed up in four words: "Hands off our schools."
The union took that message to the airwaves this week with a $23,000 radio advertising campaign in which the announcer says, "Just imagine, some company will be deciding whether to spend our taxes on our children, or on their own perks, pay and profits."
Mr. Pence also said the union is printing 50,000 "Hands Off!" lapel stickers, launching a petition drive and enlisting the support of superintendents, principals, teachers and parents across the state.
Mr. Pence said that opponents, led by the union, plan to protest the proposal next week at meetings of the state board and hearings of the Governor's Commission on School Funding, which supports the takeover measure.
At a news conference yesterday, Mr. Pence said that the state proposal, scheduled for a board vote next week, would hurt schools by removing direct control from local boards and citizens.
"State bureaucrats want to seize them and sell them to the highest bidder," he said. "They want to turn them over to private contractors whose bottom line is not what is best for your child."
State Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick countered that the union has intentionally exaggerated the scope of the takeover measure.
Dr. Grasmick said that the state would resort to taking control of schools -- known in education jargon as "reconstitution" -- only as a last resort, after the school and local school board get a chance to recommend improvements.
Only schools that fall far short of state standards and show no improvement would be targeted, Dr. Grasmick said.
About a dozen of the state's worst schools likely would be targeted for takeover as early as next September, Dr. Grasmick said. Of those, only a handful would be turned over to private operators or possibly a university, she predicted.
"Reconstitution" at others could mean ordering local boards to change principals, staff, curriculum or teaching methods, she said. State funds could be withheld from school systems that refuse to comply.
But Mr. Pence said he placed little stock in state officials' pledges to limit the number of schools put in private hands and said that privatization would expand rapidly if the proposal wins approval.
"It sort of reminds me of the potato chip ad -- 'Can you eat just one?' -- once you get in this business of farming [schools] out to people with a corporate interest instead of a community interest," he said.
Gov. William Donald Schaefer reacted angrily to the union's claim -- and accused its leaders of knowingly attempting to block overdue reforms.
"The only thing they want is status quo," he said. "My patience wore out, and I support this proposal 100 percent. We put in more and more state money [in schools], and I see less and less accountability."
State legislators have repeatedly demanded that school systems make better use of the money allotted to them, particularly by improving their worst schools, before they receive more, Dr. Grasmick noted.
She said she shares lawmakers' sense of urgency.
"We're in the business of children, and we're in the business of children's futures," Dr. Grasmick said. "If you truly believe that, you can't allow the status quo to continue.
"Is it fair for any child, by virtue of where he or she lives, to have to continue to attend a failing school -- not just a school failing over one year but one that continues to fail and to decline?"
Elementary schools would be judged on how well students perform on state tests intended to measure students' use of what they learn in the classroom.
Middle schools would be measured on performance on those tests and on attendance. High schools would be judged on attendance, dropout rates, and on the proportion of students who pass state-mandated reading, math, writing and citizenship tests.
Maryland's school board gave preliminary approval in July to the takeover proposal, among the toughest nationwide in a drive among educators to step in and reverse the decline of schools or districts plagued by poor performance.
Robert C. Embry Jr., president of the state board, said, "Our primary interest is our children and whether they're getting an education, and if they're not, then why not? And what can we do to change that?"
About 20 states have adopted measures allowing outside intervention at lagging schools, as have numerous city school districts.
The proposal caps a state school reform effort started three years ago when the board called for measurable performance standards and sanctions, including possible state takeover, for schools that fail to improve.
In Baltimore, where Minneapolis-based Education Alternatives Inc. began running nine schools last year, Superintendent Walter G. Amprey said that he has no qualms about the state proposal.
Saying he welcomes outside help for ailing schools, he added, "We just can't always assume a school will improve itself without intervention."
The Baltimore Teachers Union, the only teachers union in the state not affiliated with the Maryland State Teachers Association, also opposes the state takeover plan.
* Conducting $23,000 radio ad campaign.
* Launching petition drive and letter campaigns to local elected officials.
* Mobilizing MSTA members and supporters, urging each to persuade three others to attend hearings and call local school board to protest proposal.
* Lobbying PTAs to oppose proposal.