SCHOOL REFORM generally boasts all the stability of a human pyramid built on an ice rink. Sudden movement in any direction can bring the whole thing tumbling down.
In Detroit and Cleveland, they're learning that lesson the hard way this week, as both cities suffer through unexpected decisions that threaten to topple their school reform efforts.
But those cities' misfortunes make the relatively normal re-opening of Baltimore's public schools this week that much more delightful. For now, at least, Baltimore appears to be holding its tenuous school reform together. Let's hope that continues.
In Detroit, a last-minute teacher strike has forced a newly appointed school board to delay the opening of classes and shelve other reforms it had planned. The board wants longer work hours, pay increases tied to performance and other changes; the union, steeped in a tradition of getting its way at any cost, won't budge. No resolution is expected soon.
In Cleveland, a federal judge tore the heart out of one of the city's most successful reforms when he struck down a voucher program that allowed students to attend private schools with public dollars. A temporary order will permit students to continue in the program until an appeals court decides the matter. But an unfavorable decision could kill the program.
Things seem just peachy in Baltimore, by contrast. The third year of school reform began without the mayhem that has been typical of the first day of school. Students had schedules and identification cards. Teachers had class lists and furniture in their rooms. And the Baltimore teachers union, which is working without a contract, took no job action.
No, Baltimore's schools aren't turning out scores of Rhodes scholars yet, and not everyone has bought into the idea of reform. But things are on track. They're getting better. And in the context of reforms that could crumble if any one part slips, getting better might just be good enough.