Good intent not enough to save city schools


IN THEIR endless hour of humiliation, give the deep thinkers in the Baltimore schools this much: Their road to ruin was sometimes paved with noble intentions. They knew how children had been cheated, first one way and then another, and they tried to overcompensate. The only thing they lacked was the ability to count.

They knew about years when children were deprived of a decent education, by reason of color and of economics, and they knew about the follow-up years when kids who didn't deserve it were passed through the system. It was called social promotion. It amounted to a wink of complicity. Some were passed to get them out of teachers' hair, and others were passed in some misguided sense of pity. Ultimately, they gave kids diplomas. But they robbed them of a future.

And then came the final overcompensation: After years of pretense, the deep thinkers said it was time to put all these underachievers into summer school, thousands of 'em, and stop imagining they were being helped by institutional fraud.

"Forty thousand kids in summer school," state Sen. Nathaniel McFadden said, in a brief pause in the current chaos. "Forty thousand, and millions and millions of dollars going to pay for it over the years."

For McFadden, the city's Senate leader, this is personal. He is a City College graduate who later ran a scholarship program at Lake Clifton High. His children graduated from City and Northern. He has seen the schools at their best, and their worst.

"Everybody wanted to do the right thing," he said, his tone soft and incredulous, "but nobody on North Avenue had any sense of accountability. You had people working on North Avenue, principals and assistant principals, who were moved from one school to another because their schools were failing and nobody knew what to do with these folks. So finally, they were dropped onto North Avenue because they had contracts and there was no place else to put them.

"And you had bureaucrats reacting to instructions from CEOs -- but there was no constant. It was stop, start, stop, start, different people running the show. And then all these kids, all at once, being told they had to go to summer school. The desire was the right one. You want to help these kids finally catch up."

By "these kids," McFadden was going beyond the immediate. He was reaching across the years, recalling generations of families who never found comfort in the schools, and the desire to finally make it up to them.

"But you have all of these kids in summer school," he said, "and you find out there's no money set aside for summer school and the city's footing the bill instead of individual families paying for it. Used to be, every family had to pay $125 for summer school. On top of that, we had the city paying for lunches instead of using federal money that's available -- because nobody on North Avenue bothered to find out that the federal money was available."

Mayor Martin O'Malley remembered the crossroads moment.

"Summer school, sure," he said. "We were all waving pom-poms when we announced the summer school initiative. I remember standing there with [state school Superintendent] Nancy Grasmick and [then-city CEO] Carmen Russo. I said, 'Can we afford this?' I was told, 'Oh, sure.' On the face of it, it looked like a good thing. It made sense. We just couldn't pay for it."

When Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. first announced this week he would not accept the school financial bailout plan, he opened by saying the city's 91,000 kids "are my responsibility." It sounded like the right mix of politics and parenting. Then, a moment later, he noted, "We all have responsibility for our children in the city." A few sentences later: "This is a partnership. ... All parties are working together to save this system. ... Everybody's joined together to resolve this issue."

And then, flanked by O'Malley, by Grasmick, by the new city school CEO, Bonnie Copeland, and by several legislators, Ehrlich added: "I have a lot of friends behind me here. All of them are Democrats, I think. It's not personal, it's not partisan. It's an attempt to do what should have happened years ago."

A small observation: Those who flanked Ehrlich took pains to make the same point, that everyone's working together. It sounds nice, this notion of teamwork in a moment of crisis. As it happens, it also gives everybody political cover. Question: If they're working together now -- what, exactly, were they doing before this?

We know what they have not done: provide a first-rate public education. Sometimes their intentions were noble, and sometimes not. But we are past the time of excuses now. Continued failure, and nobody gets cover from this one.

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