Federal

Baltimore Takeovers Prevented

By Vaishali Honawar — April 17, 2006 7 min read
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The Maryland legislature’s success in blocking a state takeover of low-performing schools in Baltimore under the No Child Left Behind Act raises the prospect of political resistance in other states that might attempt such intervention.

While no other state has yet invoked the federal law to take control of a school, the experience in Maryland could be an indicator of things to come as state education officials try to implement the most dramatic sanctions called for in the 4-year-old law.

“If we’re going to do this work, then the people who are supposed to be empowered to do it should be allowed to move forward,” said Valerie A. Woodruff, the president of the Washington-based Council of Chief State School Officers and the Delaware secretary of education.

Maryland’s takeover plan would have allowed the state education department, which is led by Superintendent of Schools Nancy S. Grasmick, 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 Steps in Under NCLB in Baltimore,” April 5, 2006.)

The state board of education voted March 29 to approve the plan, acting on provisions of the NCLB law that outline five options for state intervention in a school that has failed to meet annual performance goals for five consecutive years.

Those options are converting the school to a charter school, replacing all or most of the staff, contracting with an independent entity to run the school, a state takeover, or changing the school’s governance.

Federal Response

But in Maryland, the Democratic-controlled legislature acted promptly to block the plan—ultimately overriding last week a veto by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican, and enacting legislation that bars Ms. Grasmick from intervening in the schools for at least a year. (“Md. Lawmakers Fight School Takeover Plan,” April 12, 2006.)

William Taylor, the chairman of the Citizens’ Commission on Civil Rights, a Washington-based advocacy group that supports the federal law, said he is not sure whether the planned school takeovers in Baltimore were warranted, “it is not a terrific idea for politicians who have not been close to the issue to inject themselves into it.”

Those who are charged with improving education, he said, ought to be allowed to do so without political interference. He warned that it could be dangerous to “play political football” with education.

But Baltimore legislators who pushed for leaving the schools under the control of the city school district argued they knew what was best for local children.

Sen. Nathaniel McFadden, a Democrat from Baltimore, said that he agrees the city’s schools are in poor condition, but added that there is a need to allow the school system to continue its own restructuring plans first.

“We are dissatisfied with the academic improvement in the 11 schools in question, and we will be working diligently to carry out the restructuring components necessary,” he said last week.

Observers critical of the NCLB law say that legislative intervention is necessary as state officials become increasingly wrapped up in meeting the law’s mandates.

Scott Young, a senior policy adviser for the Communities for Quality Education, a Washington-based group that tracks state implementation of NCLB, said that lawmakers allocate and are responsible for education funding.

“NCLB sets unfair expectations from school districts, imposes sanctions that don’t work, and does not provide resources to schools,” he said. “Unless these other things are fixed, state legislatures are going to push back, and so are parents and teachers.”

Ms. Grasmick is now waiting to see how federal officials react to the legislature’s action to stop the board’s restructuring plan.

Deputy U.S. Secretary of Education Raymond J. Simon wrote to Ms. Grasmick on April 5 warning that $171 million in federal Title I money for Maryland would be jeopardized if the legislature blocked restructuring efforts under the NCLB law.

Chad Colby, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Education, declined to comment last week on whether the department planned to take action against Maryland.

He said only that department officials support Ms. Grasmick and “are disappointed by the actions taken to delay immediate help to students.”

Shake-ups Inevitable

Observers point out that states are not rushing to follow Maryland’s lead in trying to take over schools under the federal law, which seeks to hold schools accountable for making annual progress in raising their students to academic proficiency. The aim is for all students to reach that level by the 2013-14 school year.

But as deadlines for meeting NCLB mandates draw closer, “there is no question this is the beginning of a wave over time of more dramatic state actions focused on schools that have been failing for a long time,” said William H. Guenther, the president of the Mass Insight Education and Research Institute, an education research and advocacy group based in Boston.

While there will always be controversies over the restructuring methods, he said, “the key is to have some consensus and, most important, a demonstration that conditions will change in dramatic and significant ways.”

School districts, he added, have the staffing and the other capacity to bring about change, and states should focus on working with them to improve failing schools.

That may be harder than it sounds, others say.

“We are certainly going to see pushback and resistance to takeovers and anything that upsets the current system and business as usual,” said Dianne Piché, the president of the Citizens’ Commission on Civil Rights. She added that the situation was complicated in Maryland by factors of race, class, and partisanship.

The 87,000-student Baltimore district is primarily African-American, and many of its students are from low-income families.

On top of the partisan split between Gov. Ehrlich and the legislature, Baltimore’s mayor is seeking the Democratic nomination to oppose the governor in his bid for a second term in November.

Ms. Piché added that any school shake-up has to be done with sensitivity to the students, families, and communities that have the greatest stake in the outcome.

In Baltimore, at least, more collaboration could have gone a long way, said another expert, who noted that the city school board is appointed both by the mayor and the state board of education.

“Why they couldn’t get together and work on instructional improvements is certainly beyond me,” said Jeff Simering, the legislative director for the Council of the Great City Schools, a Washington-based group that represents large urban districts.

Baltimore’s Plan

A day after the April 10 vote by the Maryland Senate to override Gov. Ehrlich’s veto, following an earlier override vote by the House of Delegates, the Baltimore city district, given a year of breathing room, rushed to present its own plan to revive the 11 schools that had been targeted by the state.

Some of those schools have posted nearly a decade of abysmally low test scores.

In 2009, all of Maryland’s high school students will have to pass state assessments to graduate. But at Frederick Douglass High School, one of the four high schools the state had targeted, only 15.8 percent of the students were proficient in reading and a mere 3.5 percent were proficient in mathematics on the 2005 tests.

Under the city’s plan unveiled last week, the schools will report directly to the staff of the district’s chief executive officer, Bonnie S. Copeland.

The staff members will visit the schools weekly, observe teachers, conduct regular reviews, and mentor principals. The district will offer financial incentives to principals willing to run the seven middle schools on the list.

“The only thing that counts will be how well and how quickly we achieve our academic goals and restore public confidence in our ability to enable our students to achieve academically,” Brian Morris, the chairman of the city school board, said in a statement.

The city hopes to spend $22 million in fiscal 2007 to help the 11 schools and other low-performing schools.

Ms. Grasmick, the Maryland schools chief, said that the state would continue efforts to improve performance at nine other low-performing Baltimore schools.

She hopes the attention from the recent political battle would lead the district to carry out more rigorous reform efforts.

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