Determined to end social promotion in Baltimore schools this year, the city school board has voted to spend $8 million for extra help for failing children - even at the cost of making painful cuts in this year's school budget.
Presented with two options - to help children in only 17 of its worst schools at a cost of $1.37 million, or to help children citywide catch up at a cost of $8 million - the school board chose the more aggressive and costly program.
Asked after the board vote late Tuesday where she would find the money, school chief Carmen V. Russo said, "I have no idea."
Russo said she would attempt to find some of the money in her budget, but also would lobby the state for more money. "I think the end of social promotion is critical," she said.
The board could have delayed the implementation of the tough new passing standards, but President J. Tyson Tildon said he believed that ending social promotion should be one of the highest priorities of the system.
For more than a decade, teachers and principals have had an unwritten policy of passing students even when the students were failing to read or do math on grade level.
The result is that the school system is now trying to help ninth-graders in neighborhood high schools who are reading on average at a fifth-grade level.
In the 1996-1997 school year, only 4 percent of second-graders were held back. But about half of those pupils weren't reading on a second-grade level.
"You sure don't do a service for them by promoting them," said Tildon. "I don't know of any private school that socially promotes kids."
Last October, the school board voted to end social promotion by requiring students to meet certain standards on tests throughout the year or be held back.
Part of the policy took effect last year, and thousands of second- and fourth-graders were told they would be held back.
The school system offered a summer school program for the children and said they could be passed on to the next grade, if they completed summer school and passed a test. School officials hoped that summer school would help boost achievement for those failing students, as after-school programs, tutoring and other programs have done.
A first look at the results suggest that the pass rate was higher than in many other urban school systems with summer school programs. About 50 percent of the second-graders and 40 percent of fourth-graders who went through summer school this year passed the test and will move on.
The promotion policy was supposed to be extended to grades three and seven this year, but the school board did not receive as much money as it had hoped from the state. So, at the meeting Tuesday, the school board was confronted with the decision about how far to go in setting the standards this year.
Board member Patricia Morris Welch said she did not like having to make the choice between helping one group and not another. "I don't want the blood on our hands," she said, and voted to spend the additional money.
But several members declined to support the plan, saying that they were uncomfortable not knowing what other programs they would be cutting.
Because the board has passed a spending plan for this year, finding $8 million in the budget will mean cutting something else.
Cathy Brennan of Advocates for Children and Youth said her organization believes the board should have considered waiting a year before implementing the policy.
"We are concerned that the board is implementing a policy for this year that is using money that has already been allocated," Brennan said. "We are really concerned that at this date ... they are moving forward."