Parents in Detroit are fuming over the abysmal scores of city students on a national achievement test - and demanding that the officials responsible for their kids' failure go to jail.

Of the 18 big cities that participated in the federally sponsored National Assessment of Educational Progress, Detroit came in dead last, with 69 percent of fourth-graders and 77 percent of eighth-graders scoring below the basic level in math. (Charlotte, N.C., topped the list, while Baltimore City ranked near the middle.) Detroit's scores were the worst ever recorded in the history of the tests.

"Somebody needs to go to jail," said Sharlonda Buckman, CEO of Detroit Parent Network, at a rally for 500 parents last Saturday. "Somebody needs to pay for this. Somebody needs to go to jail, and it shouldn't be the kids."

School officials are currently in a dispute with Detroit's teachers' union over a proposal to force teachers to forfeit up to $500 a month in salary to help plug a $219 million budget deficit this year. The money would be returned to them when they retire. Teachers have threatened to strike if the plan goes into effect.

But an official sympathetic to the parents' demand said they were right to be upset over the school system's dismal showing and that it wasn't the kids' fault or their parents' that educators and administrators had let the quality of education deteriorate so badly.

We don't recommend threatening Baltimore school officials with jail time to keep their noses to the grindstone. But Detroit's experience does suggests there should be a price for failure - and that it should be paid by the adults responsible, not kids who become its victims.

-Glenn McNatt

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