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Can Baltimore fill the federal education void?

Woody Allen has observed, "More than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other to total extinction." That's how I feel about national school reform these days. The choices — right and left — seem pretty bleak.

Witness the wasteland in the education platforms of the Republican and Democratic parties. The Republican platform demonizes voluntary Common Core national standards and holds out school choice as the true road to public education salvation. Those and attacks on teachers unions are Donald Trump's education talking points.

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The Democratic platform and Hillary Clinton are muted. They seek to straddle such issues as standards and charter schools, softening the extreme progressive attacks on a national role while shunning the regulatory activism of President Barack Obama and recently departed U. S. secretary of education Arne Duncan.

Both parties rejected the aggressive Obama-Duncan approach in the bipartisan vote last year to in effect repeal No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Conservatives proclaimed its successor law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, "the greatest devolution of power back to the states in education in 25 years."

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Today, resources are scant, almost all poor and minority students perform far below grade level in reading and math, and critical guidance and support from the federal government is virtually gone.

While both parties are to blame in my view, there is no remote equivalence between what Ms. Clinton and Mr. Trump would do in office. Ms. Clinton has a track record of support for national accountability and funding that will enable low-income and minority students to overcome the "opportunities-gap." Mr. Trump is committed to cutting spending and says he "may cut the Department of Education."

Can states and local school systems fill the void? Historically they haven't. Their failure to provide equal opportunity and accountability is what led to NCLB in the first place, and states undermined NCLB's intent. Still, some states and local districts may step up, and none seem more promising than, believe it or not, Baltimore City and the state of Maryland.

The new city schools CEO, Sonja Santelises, appears unique among nationwide peers in her knowledge and passion for reform where it counts the most: in daily classroom instruction, especially in literacy. She will have to make up for backsliding since she left off as the city's chief academic officer three years ago. But she recognizes the paramount importance of a multiyear plan to build higher expectations and instructional management systems that support teachers.

There is also potential for exceptional city-state teamwork. The Maryland Board of Education has commendably resisted the movement by many states to weaken accountability standards. And the new state Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education, created by the General Assembly this year, will soon begin its work to update current state funding and increase resources to enable many more students to meet the standards. (I have been appointed as a member of the commission.)

The commission's charge includes linking funding to evidence-based instructional practices that, if well managed, can produce the most academic bang for the buck. City schools, under Ms. Santelises, are likely to shine long-neglected light on what these best practices are, especially for the most disadvantaged students.

None of this will happen fast or soon. But that it could happen at all is a bright note that school bells can ring, and relieve the national gloom.

Kalman R. Hettleman is a former member of the Baltimore school board and former state human resources secretary. His email is khettleman@gmail.com.

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