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Maryland and Baltimore at Odds Over City Schools

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

In Baltimore, 11 public schools are caught in a tug of war between the city and the state. After years of terrible test scores, Maryland officials announced they were taken control of the schools. That caused an uproar in Baltimore, and state lawmakers voted to postpone the takeover for a year. But that didn't end the matter. Governor Robert Ehrlich and the general assembly can't agree with each other about what the state's next step should be, so now Baltimore officials have announced their own plans for turning these schools around, as NPR's Allison Keyes explains.

ALLISON KEYES reporting:

Just 10 percent of students at Patterson High School passed the state algebra test last year. Scores like and some that were worse led the state to propose taking control of 11 schools, including this one. Patterson's Principal Laura Lee D'Anna admits there is a lot of work to done, but says ongoing reforms at her school are already paying off.

Ms. LAURA LEE D'ANNA (Principal, Patterson High School, Baltimore): We're updating, upgrading, improving our career and tech programs. The instruction is much better, very intense--a lot of staff development, a lot of work, a lot of laser focus on instruction, seven and half hours a day, weekends, after school.

KEYES: State Superintendent Nancy Grasmick says she has been monitoring the performance of the 11 schools and found little or no progress. All of them had been on a watch list for low test scores since at least 1997.

Ms. NANCY GRASMICK (State Superintendent, Maryland): We cannot persist with this level of failure.

KEYES: So Grasmick announced plans to have companies--non-profit or other entities--take over four high schools and manage seven middle schools. That model is already in place at Baltimore's Furman L. Templeton Middle School, one of three schools taken over by the state in 2000 and now run by Edison Schools, a for profit company. Denise Smith, picking up her seven-year-old son Gregory here, says it works for him.

Ms. DENISE SMITH (Parent): This school does a lot more than any other Baltimore City Public School. I like what's going in here. I really do. The teachers take their time with the children. The principal is always there to answer your questions.

KEYES: But Grasmick's plan to expand the third party model to other schools won't happen now. Outraged Baltimore lawmakers who believed Grasmick's proposal was about politics, not education, successfully lobbied for and got a one-year moratorium on the takeovers.

Baltimore's Mayor Martin O'Malley is seeking the Democratic nomination for governor, and has called the plan an election year stunt by Republican Governor Ehrlich. Ehrlich denies that, and calls the blocking of the takeovers disgusting.

Federal education officials have warned Maryland that blocking the state takeover could jeopardize $171 million in federal funds for the schools. Grasmick says the one-year moratorium will hurt students in these schools.

Ms. GRASMICK: It's not just a year. By the time you would be able to implement a new plan with the kind of planning that is required to do it well, you're really talking about almost two and a half years.

KEYES: Baltimore's School Chief Bonnie Copeland doesn't defend the abysmal test results for the 11 schools, and she admits student performance at those schools is woefully lacking. But she thinks the moratorium is good, because it gives the City time to finish a reform plan that has been underway since 2002.

Ms. BONNIE COPELAND (Baltimore School Chief): I think we've been successful in this reform, because we have involved the local communities and helping us decide what they want their schools to look like, what they want the focus of the curriculum to look like.

KEYES: This week, Copeland announced that the 11 schools targeted for state takeover, plus an additional 11 elementary schools, will now report directly to her senior staff. The schools will be visited weekly. Financial incentives will be offered to attract principals to the seven troubled middle schools, and existing high school reform plans will proceed.

Allison Keyes, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Allison Keyes is an award-winning journalist with almost 20 years of experience in print, radio, and television. She has been reporting for NPR's national desk since October 2005. Her reports can be heard on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition Sunday.