School rescues miss mark How Baltimore reacts to intervention will determine its success


On Tuesday, Gov. Parris N. Glendening signed into law a significant dose of financial aid for Baltimore's beleaguered schools, totaling $254 million over five years.

With the money will come state oversight and a redistribution of local power, which already have proven to be the bitter parts of the city-state prescription for fixing troubled schools.

The danger lies in the possibility that many in Baltimore won't get over it: Will they rise above their disappointment and devote their energies to making the schools better?

Unfortunately, the history of school intervention by state authorities is replete with examples where local bitterness prevails and impedes progress, where states overestimated their ability to run schools, and where rescue attempts missed the mark.

More than a dozen cities and county school systems have been seized or ordered to change by their states since New Jersey took over Jersey City schools in 1989. More are forecast.

Some of the districts are making headway, but few have produced significant improvement. Academic turnaround remains elusive, say the national groups that monitor education policy.

"No district that was taken over has really met the high standards that we all believe now should be set, instead of the minimum standards that we used to expect," said Christine Johnson, director of urban initiatives with the Denver-based Education Commission of the States. "There has been modest improvement in a few of these situations, in Chicago and in Paterson, N.J., for example, but it's too early to tell."

She and others at national groups could cite only one case in which a state returned control to the municipality: rural Logan County, W.Va.

Citing financial discrepancies and low student performance and attendance, the state took over the 32-school district in 1992, ousting its superintendent. Initially, local authorities rallied for a fight. In time, they got on board and scored a victory: Last year, crediting local authorities with cooperating to improve test scores and dropout rates, the state let go.

In so many other cases, however, it's been a rough ride: the reformers and the old guard failed to set goals for improving academics, bogged down in political squabbles, lobbed lawsuits each other.

"There is no question that people feel like 'This was done to me,' " Johnson said. "The challenge before your community, your church leaders, your teachers, your parents, is to demonstrate civic leadership - for the good of the children."

Other school systems continue to lag acadmically despite state-imposed reform because they devoted the reform to mopping up administrative mess. They turned too late to such issues as teacher training, curriculum refinement, special education and children's learning needs, noted Christopher Cross, executive director of the Washington-based Council for Basic Education, and president of the Maryland Board of Education.

In many of these cases, it is understandable because the state had intervened to clean up unsound fiscal practices, rampant corruption, or budget woes caused by voter reluctance to fund schools.

In some, the tug-of-war continues among the powerful groups that stand to benefit from the millions of dollars invested in education: teachers and other employees; ministers who want to protect the many school jobs that support their congregations; grantors and vendors and consultants and others who have contracts and thus, a stake, in the largest municipal department and budget.

Cross said: "The whole thing gets reduced to this: The interests of this generation being played off against the interests of the next generation."

The negotiators who drafted the Baltimore school reform plan learned from some of those lessons, he added. Although they did not have every faction at the table, lawsuits forced many key players to be present or to advisebehind the scenes.

As a result, Baltimore's reform prescription is a hybrid - not a strict takeover, but an overhaul to be designed and carried out by a new school board made up of city residents, whose work will fall under intense scrutiny.

At the heart of the Baltimore agreement is the development of a master plan for improving student achievement. Only a few other states and municipalities had the foresight to begin their agonizing school re-evaluation and reorganization by recognizing classrooms as the place where schools get better.

But it is only a plan. And a plan is an opportunity. If the schools are to improve, it will not be solely because of a clean sweep of top management or the sudden appearance of state officials.

It will be because the community stepped forward and refused to squander the opportunity, said Joan Roache, executive director of the Maryland Education Coalition, which monitors school finance and policy.

"This is the time for parents and others to tell the new school board what has worked and should be continued and what has not worked and should be changed," she said. "This is the time to get ready."

Here's a roundup of some notable school takeovers and rescue attempts:

* Washington, D.C.: A financial control board created by Congress ousted the top officials in the Washington public schools last year and put a retired Army general in charge of the system.

* West Virginia: Run by the state since 1992, the Logan County school district improved its test scores, dropout rate and management. Last year, the state school board credited the success to local authorities' cooperation and returned the schools to them.

* California: In June 1993, the state legislature gave a $20 million emergency loan to the troubled Compton Unified School District on the condition that state officials would run the schools. Former school board members sued to reclaim their powers, but last month, a superior court judge rejected their argument that the takeover was unconstitutional.

* Ohio: In March 1995, a federal judge in a desegregation case ordered Ohio to take over Cleveland's crumbling public schools. Officials are streamlining the management and rewriting the curriculum. Last year, voters approved a tax increase, but the district was still operating about $140 million in the red - an amount about one-fourth the size of the school budget. The state has intervened in additional districts.

* New Jersey: The state seized control of its three largest public school districts - Jersey City (1989), Paterson (1991) and Newark (1995) - removing school boards and replacing top administrators with state-appointed educators. State officials say the takeovers in Jersey City and Paterson have begun to improve student achievement; intervention in Newark is too recent to assess.

* Illinois: In 1995, the state legislature dissolved the Chicago school board and gave Mayor Richard M. Daley broad power over schools: Lawmakers say reforms are making headway because parents retained a strong role on school councils, and major school factions and groups were consulted as the deal was created. By contrast, state attempts since October 1994 to clean up a financial and political mess in East St. Louis, Ill., have been contentious. A three-member state management panel dissolved the local school board in 1996, but a state judge reinstated members on grounds that local voters had been disenfranchised by the action.

* New York: Last year, the state took over the schools in impoverished Roosevelt, Long Island, and installed a three-member management team. A new school board with little more than advisory powers has been elected; the original board was ousted, and some of its members have since sued the state.

* Kentucky: A tug of war over schools began with state takeover of the public schools in Letcher County, a corner of Appalachia. Successive attempts by state officials to strip the local school board's authority have been rebuffed in court.

* Alabama: The state already runs the Macon County and Wilcox County school districts. It recently appointed a financial adviser to straighten out the books of Birmingham schools; the city has been given until the end of this school year to clean up its act.

On the horizon:

* In Missouri, a federal judge has concluded that $1.8 billion spent trying to undo the damage of past segregation in Kansas City schools has fallen short of the mark; he has urged the state to intervene to rescue the system.

* In Connecticut, with a desegregation case pending, the Legislature is considering proposals to allow a takeover of Hartford schools. The state education department has proposed sweeping changes, including penalties for schools that fail to improve, and new evaluations for teachers and principals.

* In Michigan, Gov. John Engler alarmed Detroit officials by advocating takeover of school districts where significant numbers of high school students are dropping out or failing the state's proficiency exam. Last month, the Detroit school board defeated a proposal for a "partnership" with the mayor and the governor to fix its schools; now a local management reorganization is forecast.

* Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and Texas are among other states eyeing financially troubled and poorly achieving districts.

Jean Thompson writes about education for The Sun. Robert A. Frahm, education reporter at the Hartford Courant, contributed to this report. Pub Date: 4/13/97

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