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Lawmakers Vote to Block Takeover of Schools in Baltimore

For those who don't think education policy is political

By Diana Jean Schemo

Democratic leaders in the Maryland Legislature pushed through a bill yesterday to block the state schools superintendent from removing from the city's operation 11 Baltimore middle and high schools with long records of low achievement.

The move, showing the sensitivity of education as an election year issue, was made two days after the superintendent, Nancy S. Grasmick, had won the approval of the school board to seize control of four Baltimore high schools with chronically dismal test scores and to order the city to find charter groups, universities or for-profit companies to run seven middle schools with similarly poor records.

Although Dr. Grasmick had state and federal law behind her, city officials and community leaders accused her of using the law to support Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican, at a time Mayor Martin O'Malley of Baltimore, a Democrat, is seeking his party's nomination to run for governor.

Public opinion polls suggest that Mr. O'Malley would beat the governor in a two-way race.

Dr. Grasmick also came under heavy criticism for failing to advise city officials of the takeover beforehand.

It was the first time that any state had used the federal No Child Left Behind Act to wrest control of failing schools from a district.

The battle with city officials also illustrates the potential political fallout that states' schools chiefs risk as they use the more muscular options of the law for schools that fail to improve over many years.

The moratorium on taking control, an amendment to a schools construction bill, would bar the state from initiating any actions toward a takeover until June 2007. The votes in the heavily Democratic legislature were largely along party lines, with Democrats winning large enough margins in the two houses to override an expected veto from Mr. Ehrlich.

In a statement, he accused lawmakers of "fighting for the status quo at the expense of Baltimore city schoolchildren."

Mayor O'Malley portrayed the Baltimore schools as improving.

"The fact of the matter is that after 30 years of decline we're making faster progress than any other jurisdiction in the state," he said. "This is not the time to pull the rug out from reform efforts that are starting to work."

He called the takeover "a blatant political move."

Dr. Grasmick, who spent Friday defending her actions to lawmakers, said she was not completely surprised by the response. Friday was the last day that the Legislature could act to block the takeover and still have time to override a veto.

The bill reached the governor's desk just minutes before the 5 p.m. deadline.

"I think it's unconscionable," said Dr. Grasmick, who has been superintendent since 1992, under three governors. She denied any political motivation.

"There comes a time when you have to think about what is the right thing to do," she said.

If lawmakers indeed override an expected veto, she predicted "business as usual for another year."

She said that other state superintendents who considered using the No Child Left Behind law to wrest control of chronically failing schools should anticipate the same firestorm that she faced.

Officials of the federal Education Department appeared to lend Dr. Grasmick moral support, but could offer little else. Although the federal law gives states the authority to take over schools, it does not address extraordinary measures like legislative intervention carried out on Friday.

"Leadership requires talking about the right things and doing the right things, and sometimes you take your knocks when you do that," said Henry Johnson, the federal assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education.

— Diana Jean Schemo
New York Times


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