If no takeover, back to courts Schools: If the state-city "partnership" legislation fails in the General Assembly, precedents in other cities suggest that Baltimore could lose even more control over its public schools.


AS STATE lawmakers struggle with the Baltimore City school problem, they ought to ask themselves this question: If the state-city "partnership" legislation is rejected, what's next?

The city might be able to stand the "loss" of $254 million during the next five years.

That's the amount the state would add to the city education budget in return for management reform that gives some -- but by no means all -- power over city schools to the governor and the state superintendent of schools.

But the money has to be found before it can be lost. Anyway, it's a drop in the bucket if you consider the real need of Baltimore schools. Spread over five years, the $254 million is even more diluted. Call it the pittance that a politically weakened city could wrest from a reluctant state.

Baltimore is already educationally bankrupt. City and state officials conceded as much in remarkably candid remarks at a national conference sponsored in Baltimore last month by the Education Commission of the States, an education clearinghouse based in Denver. They recited the familiar statistics: 50 of the city's 180 schools are eligible for state takeover, and more are on the way. Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke testified he had come to endorse the partnership because he realized that the system was "unresponsive" and he "could not get at" aspects of management.

The long struggle in state and federal courts over financing and managing Baltimore schools "has been the equivalent of trench warfare," the mayor said.

If the legislation fails, it's back to the courts in May -- back to trench warfare, in other words.

In what mood will we find state Judge Joseph H. H. Kaplan and federal Judge Marvin J. Garbis, who had offered to wipe the litigation slate clean in return for the reform package being kicked around this week in Annapolis?

Everyone close to the situation knows that Garbis had been particularly annoyed at Superintendent Walter G. Amprey's failure to carry out his orders in the 13-year-old special education case and that the judge came within an eyelash of placing the whole caboodle in receivership.

It's instructive to look at other cities where schools are in similar bankruptcy. In Cleveland, state Superintendent John Goff took over the city schools in 1995 with all powers except to levy taxes and close buildings.

Goff told the Baltimore hearing that he found a system with "horrible facilities," heavy debt and a graduation rate of 33 percent. He also had to deal with the third federal judge to rule on Cleveland's desegregation plan, roughly equivalent to Baltimore's long-running special education case. Goff said he was "very cynical" about the intent of interest groups, who make it almost impossible to get agreement on actions. "Urban districts are all about money and power," he declared.

The Ohio Supreme Court ruled Monday that the state's funding formula is unconstitutional, that the quality of a child's education is "dependent on the vicissitudes of geography -- that is, the place of the child's birth or residence." That observation applies to Baltimore as well, but if the Maryland case returns to state Circuit Court in May, it will take years (and millions of dollars in lawyers' fees) for appeals to be exhausted.

Two other bankruptcy "models" are in New Jersey, where Paterson, Newark and Jersey City schools are operated outright by the state, and in Chicago, where Mayor Richard M. Daley got sweeping managerial control over schools from the Illinois legislature two years ago.

Daley appointed a chief operating officer and a superboard to replace the existing board of education. Former City Hall staff members dominate the top levels of the new school bureaucracy. The Chicago experiment has had good reviews so far, but would it work in Baltimore? Would the General Assembly cede such authority to the city's mayor? Not likely.

The point is, of the responses to educational bankruptcy -- 22 states allow intervention, according to the education commission -- the one proposed for Baltimore is mild by comparison.

It's one of the few that would grant some local control and require state-city cooperation.

My colleague Gregory Kane, City Council President Lawrence A. Bell III and the local PTA are among many who complain of the city's giving up autonomy for a "measly" -- Kane's word -- $254 million. He's got the measly part right. But the situation is such that Baltimoreans are likely to give up all authority over their schools if House Bill 312 fails.

Hopkins students use funds for intriguing projects

The Johns Hopkins University each year awards 50 undergraduates up to $2,500 to propose and carry out research projects. This week's issue of the university's Gazette lists some of the more intriguing undertakings.

Education Beat's favorite is that of senior Arthur Tsai of Woodside, N.Y., who is studying the embryos of grasshoppers. The outcome of Tsai's work might be a greater understanding of human spinal cord injuries. Juniors Matthew Schernecke of Philadelphia and Jonathan Weinberger of Scranton, Pa., are among a handful of people granted interviews with the eccentric Arizona architect Paolo Soleri, while senior Juliette Wells of Springfield, Va., traveled to Cambridge, England, to study original archives of mid-20th-century novelist Barbara Pym.

Elsewhere in the Gazette is news that Supreme Court wannabe Robert H. Bork will address the Pre-Law Society on Tuesday.

Pub Date: 3/26/97

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