Having second thoughts on second-class schools


Wonderful. For 10 weeks, Our Lady of the Public Schools, Dr. Nancy Grasmick, has been selling this good-faith $254 million rescue plan for the schools of Baltimore, worrying she wouldn't be able to sell suburban legislators on the deal, only to find herself blindsided by politicians back in the city.

The mayor of all Baltimore, Kurt L. Schmoke, is said to be having second thoughts, and maybe even third. Then the president of the City Council, Lawrence A. Bell III, a man of generally diplomatic temperament, talks of "hidden agendas" and "castration."

"Castration?" Bell was asked yesterday.

"Well, " he said, pondering the various sensitive implications of the term, "I don't want to make too much of one word. But this is the largest department in the city of Baltimore. You take away local control, you castrate the local government. I don't know how you can get around that.

"You see, the way it should have been done, this mayor should have appointed outstanding, quality people to run the schools from the beginning, so we didn't have to reach this point. But he didn't do it, either because he feels threatened by strong people he can't control, or whatever."

It's the "whatevers" that make this school situation so intriguing. It's the mayor agreeing to a state takeover of schools in exchange for $254 million in state money over the next five years, and then wondering if he's miscalculated when there's talk of the takeover being permanent. It's the City Council president wondering if all of this could have been avoided with more courageous mayoral leadership.

And it's Nancy Grasmick, the state school superintendent, marching into the State House almost daily since January, sweet-talking the various county legislators who have no particular love for Baltimore, playing to their hearts, which generally beat like calculators, and trying to keep the subject on what should be most obvious: the 30-year skid in city schools, which has occurred during a variety of City Hall administrations, and county legislators, turned off by annual pleas for financial support, who are now asking a lot of embarrassing questions.

Such as: What about all the money we've sent the city in the past? Where has it gone? Why don't we see better academic results for all of this money?

Some of this questioning is fair enough, and some of it isn't. Even with various state aid, the city's still spending less money per pupil than any major subdivision. It's still unable to pay quality teachers the kind of money that keeps them from fleeing to suburbia at the first opportunity.

And it still has the kids with the most profound needs, who come out of impoverished homes, out of broken families, out of neighborhoods where the drug dealers are recruiting ninth-graders and thus continuing to fuel the dropout rate and the community violence, and where there's heartbreaking teen-age pregnancy ensuring new generations of poverty.

"Yes," Grasmick was saying now, "this is what we've tried to get across" to county legislators. "A lot of them started out saying, 'Aren't we throwing more money away? How do we know they'll spend it effectively? We know they have needs, but so do our kids.'

"It's a legitimate argument, up to a point. The children's needs are vastly different, and that's what we've had to explain. And the management of the schools is now going to change. No other system will undergo the kind of review we're going to put the city through."

What's heartened Grasmick isn't just the response from county legislators -- they're moved, she says, by stories of troubled families, and "in spite of political posturing, they want to do the right thing" -- but reaction from unexpected supporters.

City teachers, for instance.

"It's been amazing to me," said Grasmick. "Teachers who could be defensive are on our side. They feel they've been unfairly criticized over the years, that they've carried the burden for the schools' troubles. They know we're going to look microscopically at their work. But they feel the system doesn't work. They've come up to me and said, 'Here's my name. Call me if I can help.' "

That it needs help, there is no question.

"No," Lawrence Bell says, "there's no question, a lot of improvement is needed. But how do we know the state can change things that the city can't? It still comes down to the human element."

"Part of it," says Grasmick, "is philosophy. We've got to get across to these children that school is a productive place for them, it can make their lives different. Part of it is the kind of evaluating we can do, of teachers and children, which has never been done."

The state might take over the schools permanently instead of merely for five years? Who cares? Is political muscle the important issue, or the continuing cycle of second-class education leading to third-class jobs and fourth-class lives?

Pub Date: 3/20/97

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