Politicians miss schools' true lesson


STANDING at water's edge under a broiling South Baltimore sun yesterday, Mayor Martin O'Malley wiped Patapsco rivulets of perspiration from his face while championing clean air and clean water. But his speech came the day after the state school board hammered the city's public schools. This means O'Malley will now sweat to clear the air about principals and teachers who have not done their job.

Thus does summer vacation commence with another vote of dreary no-confidence in the beleaguered schools. Thus does the city get another reminder, in the midst of so much encouraging news about suburbanites falling in love with renaissance Baltimore, blossoming neighborhoods and booming downtown construction, that the city's enduring Achilles heel goes unhealed. And thus does the Ehrlich administration, lying in wait for O'Malley's gubernatorial challenge, find itself with a switchblade to plunge into O'Malley's hide.

Unless voters can recall the slight history of, say, the last 40 years in those schools.

The day before O'Malley's environmental speech, the state school board lowered the boom. They approved a plan to replace teachers at three city schools that have persistently dismal reading and math test scores, and OK'd restructuring plans for 22 more schools that keep stumbling over those yearly standardized tests.

This, only three weeks after O'Malley called his public school system "one of the biggest turnaround stories of any urban school system in the United States of America."

You can almost hear the Ehrlich political thinkers licking their chops over this one - particularly with political rumors across the state linking Ehrlich and State School Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick. Three years ago, Grasmick turned down Ehrlich overtures to be his running mate. This time around, with Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele pondering a run for the U.S. Senate, Grasmick's name has again surfaced as a possible Ehrlich running mate. Who better to state the case about continuing troubles in Baltimore's schools?

Yesterday, after his speech introducing a so-called Environmental Bill of Rights for Maryland Families - an environment, says O'Malley, made worse by Ehrlich indifference - the mayor took several minutes of questions from reporters. None concerned the environment. A bunch were about the schools.

Asked about his optimistic "turnaround" remark of three weeks ago, versus the new sign of school board no-confidence, O'Malley said, "Both can be true." Five years ago in the elementary schools, he said, "not a single grade was proficient" in the statewide testing. Now, most elementary school grades are majority-proficient.

"That's rapid progress and turnaround," O'Malley said. "It's not contradictory" to claim success in the face of new state criticism.

Well, he has a point. The schools are measurably better, though not nearly good enough. And the Ehrlich people will have their campaign point when they bemoan the continuing school troubles under O'Malley. And both sides will conveniently avoid a larger point.

The schools have these kids for six hours a day, and the world has them for 18 hours. For thousands of these kids, the world is a pretty rough place, and sometimes that includes the life inside their homes. Ask William Donald Schaefer about the troubles he had with the schools. This only goes back 35 years - and includes his years as mayor, and as governor. Ask Kurt Schmoke about the troubles with the schools. They turned his poignant "City That Reads" slogan into a sad municipal joke.

Under this week's thunderbolt decision from the state board of education, some city schools will now go through sweeping personnel changes. Teachers will be replaced and so will principals. Everybody knows, you can't replace the kids. And everybody knows, you can't replace the parents. Not only that, you can't even criticize the parents.

But parents are the heart of it. And that's the thing that goes unmentioned by the politicians, and by all who point fingers at teachers and principals. When parents aren't paying attention, kids are spending time elsewhere. You drive through plenty of neighborhoods late into the night, and kids who ought to be hitting their beds are hitting the streets. They do their sleeping through class.

And no politician wants to blame the parents for this, because parents are voters. Martin O'Malley can't go into people's homes to shake up the parents, nor can Robert Ehrlich. Nor, for that matter, can Nancy Grasmick. All they can do, after they're finished lamenting the test scores, is try to correct problems inside the schools.

They're the same problems as 40 years ago. And you can blame O'Malley for it - and Ehrlich and Grasmick, too, because the public schools are also their responsibility. Or you can understand that the trouble starts with much more intimate details than life inside the classroom itself. And, in 40 years, nobody's even begun to solve that problem.

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