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Md. Board Backs Takeover of Failing Schools

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In a move that outraged local school officials, the Maryland state board of education voted last week to allow state officials to seize control of failing schools and turn them over to private contractors to administer.

The state board voted unanimously to adopt the plan--which does not require approval by the legislature--to allow the state to intervene in schools that do not meet the standards of the Maryland School Performance Program.

The board will award up to $100,000 to schools that exceed those standards.

But this year, only eight of the state's 1,244 schools achieved an average score on the M.S.P.P. tests that meets the state standard, according to the Maryland State Teachers Association, which fears that a large number of schools may soon be subject to takeover.

Larry N. Chamblin, a spokesman for the state education department, said last week that, even though only a few schools currently meet the M.S.P.P. standards, most schools would not be subject to state intervention.

The state board will take into account a number of additional measurements, including attendance, dropout rates, and other tests in reading and math, he said.

In January, the state will begin evaluating five or six high schools that might be turned over to a private company or university to manage for the next school year, Mr. Chamblin said. Evaluations of elementary and middle schools are scheduled to begin in 1995.

The Threat of Intervention

State contractors would have the authority to alter a school's administration, organization, staff, and curriculum.

However, the schools that are targeted for seizure would have an opportunity to submit their own plans, and parents would also be allowed to offer proposals, under the policy adopted by the board.

The new system will require additional funds, and the board is expected to submit a budget request this month that the legislature is likely to consider when it reconvenes in January.

Many local educators argued last week that any additional revenue available for education should be invested in existing programs.

"When you talk about turning over the schools for profit, somebody is getting cheated, and I mean the child,'' said Karl K. Pence, the president of the M.S.T.A.

The threat of outside intervention would discourage school districts from pushing forward on reforms, he suggested.

"If you're a district that doesn't have a commitment [to reform], this gives you a loophole the size of a Mack truck,'' Mr. Pence said.

But state officials said this action is just the final option in a school-improvement program designed to boost academic performance.

"We are not in the business of taking over schools,'' Mr. Chamblin said. "We don't have the capacity or desire to.''

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