Schools are key in governor's race
Aug. 19, 2005
Barry Rascovar

Thanks to U.S. District Judge Marvin Garbis, we're getting a preview of the upcoming Democratic primary campaign for governor between Montgomery County Executive Doug Duncan, the "good schools" candidate, and Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, the "bad schools" candidate.

Last week, Garbis ordered the state to intervene in Baltimore's dysfunctional special education program, calling it a "massive failure." State schools superintendent Nancy Grasmick now oversees Baltimore's special ed classes.

Why take such an extreme step? Because after a decade of court wrangling, special ed kids in Baltimore still receive little meaningful schooling. Things are getting worse, the judge intoned, calling it a "crisis and collapse in special education services." He pointed to years of failed city leadership.

"The only realistic hope," the judge concluded, is state intervention.

As usual, O'Malley turned the matter into a political assault on Gov. Bob Ehrlich, ignoring the abysmal failure of special education improvements since he's been mayor.

Then he criticized Garbis for judicial activism -- ignoring the fact that O'Malley is a fervent champion of judicial activism in a parallel court case seeking more state aid for Baltimore schools. O'Malley also conveniently failed to mention that Garbis has tried for a decade to get city school officials to fix the situation on their own. The sorry result of the city's self-improvement efforts:

*In geometry, 99 percent of Baltimore's special ed students fall short of meeting basic standards. In the eighth-grade, 92.5 percent of Baltimore's special education students have inadequate reading skills. On the state's high school English assessment test, 98.3 percent of Baltimore's special education students flunked -- but that was better than the year before when 99.5 percent failed the test.

Such glacial progress is unacceptable to Garbis, though apparently not to O'Malley.

*During O'Malley's six years as mayor, Baltimore school system has remained the worst in the state -- by far. There are 106 Baltimore schools on the state's "in need of improvement" list. Not a single Baltimore middle school passed statewide math and reading tests. Twenty-two city schools are so bad the state is "reconstituting" them. All of the state's "persistently dangerous" schools are in Baltimore.

*On assessment tests, 35 percent of Baltimore fourth-graders were deficient in reading, versus 19 percent statewide (and 14 percent in Montgomery County). Only 4.5 percent of Baltimore fourth-graders were "advanced" readers, versus 18 percent statewide (and 23 percent in Montgomery).

The gap between O'Malley's schools and Duncan's schools is as wide as the Grand Canyon and will be exploited by Duncan in the gubernatorial campaign.

While Duncan has poured millions in additional county dollars into Montgomery's public schools and floated hundreds of millions in bonds to build new schools, O'Malley has barely nudged the city's schools contribution forward and never advanced bond funds to accelerate school construction (though the mayor is adamant about spending $305 million in city bonds for a convention hotel).

While Duncan has kept a close eye on what county educators are up to, O'Malley has been curiously disengaged from Baltimore schools, allowing the last school chief to run up an outrageous $58 million deficit without improving classroom performance.

O'Malley only got involved after Ehrlich and the legislature tried to save the school system from bankruptcy. He fashioned a political solution but sidestepped more difficult education issues.

Now Garbis' denunciation of Baltimore's special education program has turned attention to this area of mayoral neglect just as Duncan and O'Malley begin gearing up their statewide campaigns for governor.

O'Malley may have a tough time defending his education record, especially when it is compared with the first-rate job Duncan has done to overcome education problems in Montgomery County, where the majority of the county's 139,000 students are non-whites -- 31,000 African Americans, 27,000 Hispanics and 20,000 Asians.

(Most of Baltimore's students are African Americans -- 78,400 out of a total of 88,400. Only 7,708 whites attend city public schools, along with 1,400 Hispanics and 550 Asians.)

Quality education is dear to the hearts of parents in Maryland's growing suburbs. It's a top priority. A politician who neglects his district's schools won't get much respect. This could become a major impediment for O'Malley, especially if Duncan hammers the mayor with school criticisms.

O'Malley has tried to pin Baltimore's education woes on Ehrlich, but that tactic ignores the threat Duncan poses to the mayor in the Democratic primary.

Duncan will tout the success of his county's schools as proof he knows how to manage and lead. How will O'Malley respond when quizzed about the federally ordered intervention in Baltimore's special education program? Or the miserable test scores in most city schools? It happened on his watch, a fact Duncan will be sure to remind Democratic voters between now and next year's primary.

Barry Rascovar is a strategic communications consultant. His Wednesday morning commentaries can be heard on WYPR, 88.1 FM. His e-mail address is