School aid: Now comes the hard part


THE BALTIMORE school-aid package passed by the legislature and signed by the governor last week is a huge victory for school reform. But hard work lies ahead.

First, of course, will be the nuts and bolts of implementing the new management structure -- appointing a new board, finding the right leaders for the system and then actually putting in place the administrative changes that should lead to better student achievement. This needs to happen as quickly as possible, given the inevitable confusion and sagging morale caused by the uncertainties of the past year.

But even the best new plans can flounder without public support for the long haul. And in school reform, it takes the long haul -- years, not months -- to produce significant changes.

Public support is especially important in this case. Like many political campaigns, the long debate over the aid-for-accountability package produced heated rhetoric, and with it some misconceptions.

Exhibit A: Painting the deal as a "state takeover." That notion stems from the fact that the mayor will now share the power to appoint school-board members with the governor, thus giving up sole control over the board.

What critics don't point out is that under this arrangement, the mayor of Baltimore still has more power over school-board appointments than any other local executive in the state. The controlling power he gave up was a relic of an era when the city system was bigger, better, richer and more politically powerful than most of the state's other subdivisions combined.

Another misconception is that the state will control procurement. The state has no interest in expanding its responsibilities to include the micro-management of a local school system. But it has an enormous interest in keeping Baltimore city schools from reverting to court receivership -- the likely outcome had the General Assembly not ratified the aid package.

Walter Sondheim, a member of the state Board of Education, has been active in education issues for half a century; his first appointment to the city school board came in 1948. He is as happy as anybody that the deal was finally struck. But he sounds some cautionary notes.

He worries that the rhetoric praising the arrangement -- essential to building enough support to approve the bills -- may have built unrealistic expectations about the time it will take to get results. Anyone expecting to see a sharp turnaround in student performance within the next few months is expecting miracles, not mere reform.

Mr. Sondheim also worries about the opposition to the bill that surfaced among some city leaders, including some ministers, some elected officials and, most surprising of all, NAACP President Kweisi Mfume. Does their vocal criticism give them a vested interest in seeing the plan fail?

Let's hope not, because the failure of school reform would be a setback not just for politicians or public figures. It would represent a tragedy with far-reaching consequences -- blighted futures for city children.

But if dangers lie ahead, there is also plenty of reason to hope for the best. After all, Maryland has been fortunate in its leaders on this issue.

Rarely does a politician stand on principle as boldly as Del. Howard "Pete" Rawlings has for the past few years. And how often is an education department led by someone who speaks as persistently and eloquently as Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick about the real purpose of schools -- the success of children. Their strong leadership has been essential to the success of this effort. Many others deserve credit as well.

When the road ahead gets hard, all those leaders will need to move forward again and again, always with the message that we got this far by keeping our eye on what matters most -- children, not politics.

Sara Engram is deputy editorial-page editor of The Sun.

Pub Date: 4/13/97

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