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Baltimore schools' failure may cost every county

August 02, 2005|by BOB MAGINNIS

Calling for someone's dismissal may be one of the surest ways to get their attention.

But that's not why The Herald-Mail wrote its July 20 editorial calling for the departure of Nancy Grasmick, the state superintendent of Maryland schools.

We did so after a number of futile attempts by Grasmick over more than 10 years to get the Baltimore school system to perform adequately. We felt it was time to let someone else to try to solve the problem.

No one doubts the situation is serious. Almost 99 percent of Baltimore 10th-graders with disabilities failed the state reading test in 2005.

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And, students with disabilities had a graduation rate of only 32 percent, despite the fact that in 2000, the system pledged that would improve to 41.6 percent.

When such deficiencies are cited, the Baltimore system's reaction has always been that the state is too stingy, that with more money will come better results, even though Baltimore now spends more per-pupil than any system in the state.

Grasmick said Friday she is fed up, not only because she is tired of promises that Baltimore school officials apparently make with no intention of keeping, but because Baltimore's non-performance could cost systems all over Maryland federal money.

Maryland receives $185 million a year in federal special-education money, Grasmick said. Recently, she said, federal officials said that unless Baltimore's deficiencies are corrected, they will withhold about $90 million of that.

That would mean every system in Maryland would see its special-education money cut in half.

To prevent that, her department in July asked the U.S. District Court to take over the Baltimore system, something she said is otherwise prevented from doing by the No Child Left Behind Act.

In the past, Baltimore has been given a pass, Grasmick said, based on promises to do better and "rosy pictures that aren't based on factual information."

Grasmick said that "the only thing we hear is how much better they're going to do."

Last year the Baltimore system didn't do well at all. Carol Ann Baglin, the state's director of special education, said that 60 to 80 percent of the system's special-needs children didn't get the services they were supposed to get.

This wasn't just a state assessment, Baglin said. The city school system's own audit showed the same thing, she said.

To help those children, Grasmick said, Baltimore officials promised they would deliver those services to the children this summer.

But that didn't happen.

"We went to the sites they gave us. We could find no children and no providers actually doing the work," Baglin said.

Asked why school officials would defy a state agency that has power over its budget, Grasmick said, "I think they feel very protected. They haven't experienced consequences in the system."

Grasmick said the state system's previous move to take control of three failing Baltimore elementary schools - Furman-Templeton, Gilmore and Montebello - worked well.

"We brought in a private contractor and everyone had to apply for his or her job again," she said.

Though parents were skeptical at first, the schools are succeeding to the point where there isn't enough room for all who want to transfer their children in, Grasmick said.

But the No Child Left Behind ACT stripped that power from the state, Grasmick said.

"We don't have that authority any more," she said.

Grasmick is asking the judge to appoint a special master, which would allow the state to assemble a management team "so that we could show them how it's done."

When I note that the Baltimore system's reaction to previous problems has always been to ask for more money, Grasmick said she doesn't want to give the city system another dollar until officials there can show that what they're spending now has produced positive results.

Now that the fate of Washington County's special-education money is tied to how well Baltimore performs, local state delegates need to stand firm against any attempt by big-city lawmakers to reward non-performance with additional cash.

Grasmick didn't say it, but it's clear that politics has kept Baltimore's school system from being sanctioned before now.

Parents who don't follow through on their threats to discipline a child know what happens - the child only gets worse. Now that Washington County's fate is tied to Baltimore's, it's time for lawmakers all over the state to demand that any new cash for Baltimore will depend not on city lawmakers' clout, but on the city system's performance.

Bob Maginnis is editorial page editor of The Herald-Mail newspapers.

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