Schmoke's intervention in schools stirs questions

THE BALTIMORE SUN

For the past three weeks, even as Baltimore officials publicly celebrated signs of progress in their fight to resuscitate the beleaguered education system, they were anguishing over a new round of crises.

The anxiety at school headquarters and City Hall spilled over Thursday when Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke intervened to shore up an education system that appears under siege.

A federal judge had raised the possibility of shifting the schools out of the city's control. Skeptical state legislators had threatened to block millions in school aid. And a new report had called into question the progress of Baltimore's best-known school privatization experiment.

Mr. Schmoke, who has insisted on playing a prominent role in shaping local education policy, ordered changes to overhaul special education programs and to renegotiate the contract with Education Alternatives Inc. But his move has raised broader questions.

One is whether his superintendent, Dr. Walter G. Amprey, can lead the school system out of an 11-year-old federal suit alleging the district fails to serve disabled children. Another is whether the mayor acted to deflect criticism of EAI in an election year, or whether he has lost faith in the company's efforts to manage the nine "Tesseract" schools.

The most pressing matter is whether Mr. Schmoke will be successful in settling the special education lawsuit that threatens his control of the schools.

"I had to send a signal about special education, that I felt a sense of urgency about it," Mr. Schmoke said Friday. "If the school system were put in receivership because of special education, the parents and teachers and all others would assume there were problems with the whole school system."

One key move was to shift control of special education from Dr. Amprey to a deputy superintendent, who will report directly to the mayor. Right now, the programs, which serve about 17 percent of the district's 113,000 children, are run by two school departments and overseen by a court-appointed management team and a monitor.

Mr. Schmoke said he decided to order the reorganization after learning of the threat of losing the schools to a court-appointed manager, possibly Nancy S. Grasmick, state superintendent of schools. Attorneys at the Maryland Disability Law Center, which represents plaintiffs in the lawsuit, have drafted a request for such a manager but have not filed it in court; their next meeting with the judge is scheduled for Tuesday.

The lawsuit also has been a financial drain on the city. Just since 1989, it has cost some $1.8 million in court expenses, legal fees and the price of the monitor.

In recent weeks, the mayor had a chance to savor some educational successes -- test scores and attendance rates showed districtwide improvement.

Yet at the same time, he received EAI's own report that it has not boosted student attendance and reading scores at the schools it runs. And it was becoming clear that despite improvements made in special education services, problems persisted: In November, Dr. Amprey had been held in contempt of court for not complying with an order to report formally on the school system's shortcomings in special education.

Worried that his superintendent "appears to have lost credibility with the federal court," and frustrated by the drawn-out suit, Mr. Schmoke decided to make bold changes, such as choosing the new deputy.

"I want him [Dr. Amprey] to be an effective superintendent, and he sure couldn't be while he [was] being held in contempt of court," Mr. Schmoke said. He acknowledged the move would create a little awkwardness, but said he hopes it will resolve the special education crisis and "allow Dr. Amprey to focus in on the rest of the system."

Dr. Amprey expressed support of the mayor's actions, noting there were few options.

"Nothing about it impugns my ego or strikes a negative against me," he said. "There are issues now that I probably cannot overcome on my own, including the issues around the legislators withholding money from the schools and the federal judge holding me in contempt."

In addition to ordering the changes in special education last week, the mayor called for revising the controversial, five-year EAI contract. That agreement must hold EAI to measurable standards, including better student scores, he said.

Both moves came as state legislators voted to withhold about $6 million, earmarked for administrative expenses, until Dr. Amprey reforms school management.

"He recognizes our school system is under siege, and what this superintendent right now needs is cover," Dr. Amprey said. "This mayor tries to provide that cover."

However, Dr. Amprey continues to disagree with his boss over the emphasis put on measuring school success by test scores. "We've oversold the public on the importance and the finality of standardized test scores. They're unfair," he said.

Former state Sen. Julian L. Lapides, who is running for city comptroller, agreed that the contract should incorporate performance standards. "It's essential," he said. "Hopefully, the whole purpose of the experiment is to achieve a higher standard."

Renegotiating the EAI contract was seen by many as a smart way to blunt criticism and doubts over the privatization venture in an election year. By saying he wants to require measurable improvements in student attendance and achievement, Mr. Schmoke has undercut a key complaint of City Council President Mary Pat Clarke, who is challenging his bid for a third term as mayor.

Mrs. Clarke objected to the contract from the moment it was approved by the city's Board of Estimates in July 1992, saying there were inadequate standards to judge the pioneering endeavor. She stepped up her criticism as council members, the teachers union, community leaders and black ministers became disillusioned with EAI amid reports of few academic gains.

Mr. Schmoke said at the time that he would wait to judge the company's future on the results of an evaluation by the Center for Educational Research at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. Even then, however, he vowed to end the contract if the evaluation -- due this summer -- found no improvement in student performance.

Administration insiders say Mr. Schmoke has become increasingly impatient with EAI, a private, Minnesota-based company with a smooth sales pitch. EAI, which holds five-year city contracts estimated to be worth $180 million, promised to improve student performance with a customized curriculum and an array of high-tech equipment.

Mayor Schmoke is uneasy about the company's ability to live up to its promises, according to those familiar with the situation, and more impressed by the results in the remaining schools, now run by teams of teachers, administrators and parents. He also has been frustrated at having no substantial results to point to at a time when support for EAI has eroded in many Baltimore communities.

For his part, the mayor said that he has not given up on EAI, but wanted to revise the contract because the company's own reports showed notable gains in math but not in reading or attendance.

While he agreed with Dr. Amprey that it is tough to determine progress by test scores alone, Mr. Schmoke said, "In the world that we live in, dealing with the state funders and federal funders, they demand some measurement of accountability. And the only thing they rely on are things like test scores and college acceptance. The fact is we are judged by objective measurements."

Second District Councilman Carl Stokes, who chairs the council's education committee, said he believes the mayor is under pressure, politically and from his own impatience to see improvements. "Having seen this contract through a couple of years, and having seen us spend more money and no clear results, I think he wants a way out of it," Mr. Stokes said.

Although critics suggested Mr. Schmoke's motives were political, his intervention in the school system was consistent with his previous actions.

In 1992, he overruled a recommendation by Dr. Amprey to eliminate seven popular K-8th grade schools. He also showed up unexpectedly one day at a warehouse to deal with the problems in getting books for students. Earlier, the mayor allowed parents to have a private curriculum at the Barclay School over the objections of then-superintendent Dr. Richard C. Hunter.

The mayor's direct involvement has at times created a damaging impression that his school leadership cannot institute the necessary reforms. Yet his high-profile role also has won Mr. Schmoke admirers.

"He's being mayor," said Robert C. Embry Jr., a former school board member and head of the Abell Foundation, who praises the mayor for trying the EAI experiment. "He ran on education being his No. 1 thing, and I think the voters will ultimately hold him responsible for how the schools are doing."

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