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Published in Print: April 12, 2006, as Md. Lawmakers Fight School Takeover Plan

Md. Lawmakers Fight School Takeover Plan

U.S. education officials threaten fiscal sanction if intervention scuttled.

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The U.S. Department of Education upped the ante in the battle over Baltimore schools last week with a threat to withdraw Title I funds from Maryland if the state fails to move forward with a plan to restructure 11 low-performing schools under the No Child Left Behind Act.

The department’s position raises the profile of the restructuring effort, which put Maryland in uncharted waters as the first state to attempt to exercise the ultimate intervention—a school takeover—under the accountability provisions of the federal law.

As of late last week, however, the plan appeared headed for defeat as foes in the legislature vowed to scuttle the restructuring effort, arguing there is little proof that state takeovers help low-performing schools. ("State Steps In Under NCLB in Baltimore," April 5, 2006)

On March 29, the Maryland board of education voted to allow the state to seize control of four Baltimore high schools and transfer seven middle schools in the city to outside managers such as charter groups, universities, or for-profit companies. State schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick pushed for the plan.

But less than 48 hours after that vote, Baltimore’s caucus in the legislature won passage of a bill to block the state from seizing control of the schools.

Then, in an April 5 letter to Ms. Grasmick, Deputy U.S. Secretary of Education Raymond J. Simon issued a stern warning regarding the legislature’s effort to block the state action. “A [state education agency] that does not, or cannot, carry out its statutory responsibilities, particularly with respect to the accountability provisions that are central to the success of NCLB, would be subject to potential enforcement actions, including the withholding of [Title I] funds,” Mr. Simon wrote.

Maryland receives approximately $171 million in Title I funds. Under the federal law, if a school fails to make adequate yearly progress for five or more years, the state must convert it to a charter, replace all or most of the staff, contract it to an independent entity, turn the operation over to the state, or implement major governance restructuring.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican, promised to veto the bill by the end of the session, April 10. Ms. Grasmick hopes the veto would be sustained despite threats to override it.

It’s not clear how the federal penalties would be applied if the legislature succeeded in blocking the state board’s plan.

“I’m hopeful that the consequence would be targeted to the district that is not in compliance with NCLB,” Ms. Grasmick said.

Responding to Mr. Simon’s letter, Sen. Nathaniel McFadden, a Democrat from Baltimore, asserted that the legislature was within its constitutional rights in passing the bill and should not lose Title I money.

A Political Battle

The Maryland bill would prevent the state board of education and Ms. Grasmick from restructuring Baltimore schools or removing any schools from the direct control of the Baltimore city board of school commissioners. The votes, in the Democratic-controlled legislature which would be enough to override a veto, were largely along party lines.

Baltimore school officials fought the takeover plan, claiming to have been surprised because the city has been working on reform plans, particularly for the high schools, that were approved by Ms. Grasmick. They also decried the lack of an opportunity to participate in the state’s plan.

Education observers said it appears that the state failed to smoothly handle the politics behind the takeover, resulting in the current political standoff. They also questioned if Maryland has a clear-cut plan for the schools.

“You have to make a clear case for why the action is taken, and have a clear plan for what the state takeover will mean,” said Ross Wiener, the policy director at the Washington-based Education Trust. “We saw none of that in Maryland.”

Ms. Grasmick said that while the state’s hands may be tied by the legislature, the state has the knowledge and wherewithal to implement a successful plan.

“We’ve been through this experience with Edison schools,” said Ms. Grasmick, referring to three elementary schools that were seized by the state six years ago and handed over to Edison Schools Inc. of New York City. She said the state education department has also worked closely with the governor to open charter schools—an effort that’s yielded “excellent results,” she said.

“We would be very thoughtful in how we would do this,” she said.

Some lawmakers claimed that Mr. Ehrlich’s support for the state plan was a politically motivated move in an election year. Mr. Ehrlich could face a challenge for re-election from Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley, a Democrat, who opposes the takeover plan.

Henry Fawell, a spokesman for Mr. Ehrlich, said the governor had absolutely no role to play in drafting the takeover plan, or in its implementation. “It is the state board of education’s decision, and this is a bipartisan board appointed by Gov. Parris Glendening,” Mr. Ehrlich’s Democratic predecessor, Mr. Fawell said.

National Results Mixed

National research has found that state takeovers have not provided dramatic and consistent increases in student performance. For instance, a 2004 study from the Denver-based Education Commission of the States found that student achievement in schools often falls short of expectations after a state takeover. In most cases, academic results are mixed at best.

“[A takeover] really is a last recourse, and there is little evidence that state bureaucrats can do a better job of running schools than folks at the local level,” said Ronald Cowell, a former Democratic state legislator in Pennsylvania and the president of the Education Policy and Leadership Center in Harrisburg, Pa.

Jeff Simering, the legislative director for the Council of the Great City Schools in Washington, said, “This action by the Maryland State Department of Education is entirely a discretionary decision on their part and not required under NCLB.”

Ms. Grasmick countered that Maryland has had a strong accountability plan since 1994 and does not always mirror national research. “I feel we should look at the research, but that is not a prediction of what will happen here,” she said.

Closer to home, the Maryland Department of Legislative Services, a nonpartisan analytical arm of the state legislature, found in its fiscal-impact report on the bill that the three Edison schools in Baltimore have not performed significantly better than other elementary schools in the city.

For instance, in 3rd grade reading on the Maryland state assessments, 61 percent of the students at other city schools performed at the proficient or above level in 2005, while 63 percent of the students at the Edison-run schools performed at that level. But in 4th grade reading for the same year, 65 percent of the students at other city schools were proficient or above, while only 60 percent at the Edison schools were at that level, according to the DLS analysis.

Ms. Grasmick said that analysis was unfair because it compares the three Baltimore schools to all other elementary schools citywide, including several low-performing schools. She said results at the three schools, which were failing, have increased dramatically over the last few years.

She added that two of the four high schools slated for a takeover were identified as low-performing by the state as early as 1994. “But less aggressive, less creative, and less systemic actions have not yielded any results in those schools,” she said, adding that more than a thousand students have dropped out, forcing the state to take more severe measures.

Vol. 25, Issue 31, Pages 25,28-29

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