One of the feistiest points in today's debate between Gov. Martin O'Malley and former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., and in their debate on Monday, and in the back and forth between the two all week, was an issue that might have many Marylanders scratching their heads. It centers around something that happened in the spring of 2006, something other than the 72 percent BGE rate increase that is all too fresh in voters' minds. It was a debate over the state's attempted takeover of 11 failing Baltimore schools, which was supported by Mr. Ehrlich and opposed — and ultimately blocked — by then-mayor O'Malley and the Democrats in the legislature.
Mr. Ehrlich, in both debates and in interviews, has described the incident as demonstrating the worst in politically motivated, callous disregard for the Baltimore City School system's failure. Mr. O'Malley, in both debates, accused Mr. Ehrlich of using "coded language" to demonize the city and its students and of refusing to acknowledge the progress that they have made. Mr. Ehrlich countered that Mr. O'Malley was coming very close to "playing the race card," which is a polite way of accusing the governor of calling him a racist.
Who's right about this and, more importantly, should voters care about something that happened four years ago?
Mr. Ehrlich is on solid ground when pointing out that the 11 schools — seven middle schools and four high schools — had terrible graduation rates and test scores. For example, 1.2 percent of eighth graders at Thurgood Marshall Middle School had tested proficient in math the previous year. Just 3.2 percent of seventh graders at Calverton Middle School achieved that level. In all the subject areas and all the grades among those seven middle schools, the highest score was a 50.7 percent pass rate in sixth grade reading at Chinquapin Middle School. Across all grades and tests, less than a quarter of students were passing the Maryland Scholastic Assessment tests.
The four high schools didn't look much better. At Frederick Douglass High School, 4.8 percent had passed the High School Assessment in Algebra. At Southwestern High School, the average was just 3.5 percent. The graduation rate there was a dismal 35.6 percent.
Maryland's constitution guarantees all students a free and adequate public education, and when Mr. Ehrlich talks about "kids being denied their constitutional rights," this is what he's talking about.
The state schools superintendent, then and now Nancy S. Grasmick, asked the state Board of Education to approve what was believed to be a first-in-the-nation takeover of failing schools under No Child Left Behind. The plan was for the high schools to be handed over to private or non-profit groups who would report directly to the state. The seven middle schools would have been transformed into charter schools or operated by some third party and would still report to the city school board.
Mr. Ehrlich in both debates quibbled about whether this should be called a "takeover," but that's somewhat beside the point. Ms. Grasmick didn't do a good job of informing Baltimore parents, teachers or administrators of the move, much less building consensus, before getting the board's backing. That, combined with the heated atmosphere of the governor's race between Mr. Ehrlich and Mr. O'Malley, led to a strong political backlash.
The timing was wrong, and the way the state went about it was wrong, but it's impossible to get away from Mr. Ehrlich's point that those schools were failing the kids who attended them. Legislators eventually blocked the move around a cry to give the city more time to turn the schools around, leading to the most memorable ad of Mr. Ehrlich's 2006 campaign in which a man said, "They want more time? More time for what?"
That was a fair question given the years of dysfunction in the city school district. And if nothing had changed in the subsequent four years, Mr. Ehrlich would be completely justified in hammering Mr. O'Malley and everyone else who opposed him then. But the last four years saw the arrival of city schools CEO Andrés Alonso and the most rapid period of reform and progress ever seen in Baltimore schools and one of the great urban education success stories in the nation.
Of the seven middle schools, three have since been closed. Among the rest, test scores have, on average, more than doubled. One of the schools, Hamilton Middle School, posted 97.7 percent proficiency rates in sixth grade reading and math last year. Two of the high schools have since been closed or reconstituted, and among the remaining two, the pass rate among seniors for the high school assessments in Algebra and English 2 has nearly quadrupled.
Mr. O'Malley has a point, then, when he accuses Mr. Ehrlich of badmouthing the city without acknowledging its progress. The test scores in these schools are still unacceptable — no one would deny that. But neither can anyone honestly deny that the students there have made massive improvements.
When voters try to parse this debate on their way to the polls in 2010, they need to ask themselves what's more important, an argument from 2006 or everything that's happened since?