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Tough love for schools that are failing; State takeover: With more schools targeted, state needs stronger will and better way to back up its threats.


AS MOST parents know from experience, even repeated threats do little good if they aren't backed up with action.

That is the uncomfortable situation the Maryland State Department of Education finds itself in as it adds another nine elementary schools -- six in Baltimore and three in Prince George's County -- to its list of failing schools.

This week's addition expands to 97 the number of schools statewide that have been targeted for state takeover unless they show measurable achievement gains.

In spite of the tough talk, six years after the state started its "reconstitution" program, not one school has improved enough to be removed from the state's watch list. Yet no school has been taken over by the state.

What's the state waiting for? Because 83 of the schools are located in Baltimore, State Superintendent of Schools Nancy S. Grasmick says it would be "disrespectful" to act when the city has had only five months to implement its master plan for systemwide school reform.

But critics, including the nonprofit Advocates for Children and Youth, point out that failing schools across the state have been allowed to languish because the state does not require them to meet annual, attainable targets for improving student performance.

What's more, the State Department of Education has yet to complete the groundwork needed before it can actually step in and take over control of poor-performing schools. Not until the first requests for proposals go out this spring will the state know whether for-profit companies, nonprofit groups or local universities are willing to contract with the state to run these deeply troubled schools.

Certainly, real reforms take time, and no takeover of schools should be undertaken lightly. So the State Department of Education is right to team up with Advocates for Children and Youth to explore methods of strengthening the state's control over failing schools, short of takeovers. One legislative proposal would fund the placement of outside experts in the troubled schools.

But it was Maryland's bold pledge that it would step in and take control of these schools that earned national acclaim. Dr. Grasmick insists that the takeover threat is real and that she could act on it as early as next year.

Delaying action further would send an inescapable message that the State Department of Education lacks the will to back up its tough talk.

Pub Date: 1/29/99

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