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Partisan politics hits new low in Annapolis

April 04, 2006

As the 2006 session of the Maryland General Assembly winds down, the Democratic leadership is pushing so many purely partisan measures that they threaten to turn Republican Gov. Robert Ehrlich into an underdog.

But the Democrats' move to block the takeover of some failing or poorly performing schools in Baltimore has to be the worst, because what's at stake is not the governor's power, but the future of many city schoolchildren.

It would be hard to argue the State School Superintendent Nancy Grasmick - a holdover from Democratic Gov. Parris Glendening's administration, by the way - has been too quick to pull the trigger.

Given Baltimore's slow improvement, another year's delay only delays what may be an academic train wreck.

Why? Because if today's ninth-graders don't pass state assessment tests, they won't get a diploma when it's time to graduate.

In 1999, after noting that some poorly performing Baltimore schools had been on the list since 1993, Grasmick decided to give them yet another year to shape up.

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They were getting that extra time, Grasmick said, because they were operating under a new "master plan" written after the city yielded partial control to Maryland in 1997 in exchange for additional $250 million in state funding.

In 2000, Grasmick was ready to follow through. The (Baltimore) Sun reported that through a procedure in state law, Grasmick took over three troubled elementary schools. By using a private company to run them, she said scores have greatly improved.

Last year Grasmick grappled with the Baltimore system's failure to adequately deliver services to 60 to 80 percent of the schools' special-needs students.

How could Grasmick be sure schools were failing that badly? Because an audit done by the Baltimore school system told her so!

School officials there once again asked for more time, pledging they would help those students during the summer.

That didn't happen, according to Carol Ann Baglin, the state's director of special education. In August 2005, Baglin said her staff did some monitoring visits.

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

At the time, Grasmick was asked why the Baltimore system would defy a state agency with power over its budget.

"I think they feel very protected. They haven't experienced consequences in the system," she said.

Other school systems around the state might, if Baltimore doesn't get its act together. Federal officials have already threatened to withhold $90 million in special-education money from Maryland , unless that city's system shows some improvement.

And so, when the Democratic leaders tell you they're rescuing Baltimore schools from the clutches of the state bureaucracy, ask yourself this: Who will rescue the children from the grip of political partisanship?

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