Opinion

Antero Pietila: Cheap games won?t help Baltimore City schools

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Shame on Gov. Robert Ehrlich, shame on Mayor Martin O?Malley! In blaming one another for the deficiencies of Baltimore?s public schools, they play cheap political games that won?t help city schools. In my 37 years in Baltimore, who sits in the mayor or governor?s office makes not a whiff of difference, because the roots of the school system?s problems run so deep.

I started covering schools two years after the 1968 riots. The dispirited city hovered near its nadir. Whites fled to the surrounding counties in record numbers; blacks flexed muscles. William Donald Schaefer was mayor and the City Council was still majority white, when Dr. Roland Patterson became the first African-American superintendent in 1971. He was the highest-ranking official of his race in the city.

Blacks saw Dr. Patterson as visionary; many whites regarded him as a racist.

The school system instantly became a political battleground. School board meetings starting at 6:30 p.m. lasted until 2 a.m. or later, punctuated with unproductive cajoling and nasty racial sniping.

Patterson believed in black empowerment through decentralization. The white power structure did not. They organized his removal in 1974. (The news didn?t even make the front page in The Sun, because President Richard Nixon, tainted by Watergate, resigned the same day.)

The next superintendent started what has since become a hallmark of the Baltimore system ? constant reorganizations, depending on each superintendent?s philosophy. One of the strangest chapters unfolded during in the 1980s under Richard Hunter.

He wanted to lower the standards of prestige schools including Poly, Western and City College, bizarrely believing lowering standards in those schools would somehow help underachieving ones to do better.

Meanwhile, fundamental social changes rocked the city. As first black traditional families and then white ones disintegrated, single-parent households became the norm and drugs invaded the predominantly poor city.

So few parents participated in their children?s education that many schools did not host a PTA.

Transience, the most devastating effect of the changes, infected the city like a virus, as the growing underclass moved from one eviction notice to the next.

Even today, it is not unusual to see 75 percent turnover in many elementary schools during a single academic year, according to the school system.

No other Maryland jurisdiction faces a turnover rate anywhere that high. No wonder low achievement scores dog so many Baltimore City schools.

But however lamentable such poor scores are, it is hard to see how state intervention can raise them consistently and meaningfully, unless vagabond lifestyles end.

If the gubernatorial candidates want to add anything worthwhile to the campaign, they should propose realistic cures and timetables for addressing this complicated social situation.

The other issue the candidates must address is no easier. Since the Baltimore City public schools ? like most urban systems ? change superintendents far too often to produce consistent results, the candidates should outline how they would stop the endless policy zigzags whenever a new chief arrives.

These demands are a bit nonsensical, of course.

Neither the governor nor the mayor controls fundamental social conditions any more than he controls the independent school board. But by sniping at one another, Ehrlich and O?Malley have inserted themselves into the debate and owe the public a substantive contribution to the school policy discussion.

This would be a good start. It would highlight the complexity of the problem.

In comparison to the Baltimore City public school system, the Maryland Department of Education is an island of stability.

State superintendents usually outlast city superintendents by many years.

And the state, historically, has seldom intervened with local school boards. Nancy Grasmick, with input from Gov. Ehrlich, has started to change that policy, with Baltimore City an easy target.

But as long as kids from dysfunctional homes roam from school to school within a single academic year, there is no good reason to believe that state intervention will achieve any better results. The mayor is not at fault; social conditions are.

Antero Pietila is writing a book about how bigotry shaped the Baltimore metropolitan area. His e-mail is hap5905@hotmail.com.
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