Schools average a grade of D-plus

49% say education is among the city's top two challenges

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The Baltimore school system earned poor marks from Democratic voters in the city, according to a new Sun poll, which shows education second only to crime as the most important issue in this year's mayoral election.

Asked to grade the city schools, respondents gave the system an average mark of D-plus. Forty-two percent selected grades of D or Fail.

Forty-nine percent of poll respondents ranked schools as the largest or second-largest challenge facing the city. That compares with 86 percent for crime and 15 percent for the issue in third place, the economy and availability of jobs.

"If you have a good, solid public education, a lot of that crime will go on the wayside," said Nathan M. Carter, a 60-year-old West Baltimore resident. "A lot of kids say, 'Well, I don't need no education, I'm going to sell drugs.' You've got to give them another avenue."

Carter was among the 16 percent of people polled who said education was the city's biggest challenge; 33 percent said it was the second-biggest.

"It's only because crime is such a big issue that schools are not jumping off the charts," said Steve Raabe, president of OpinionWorks, a nonpartisan Annapolis firm that conducted the poll for The Sun.

"There is a lot of concern and a lot of disgust over the way the schools are being run or handled. ... It's an abysmal rating," he said.

The poll, which surveyed 601 Democrats registered to vote in the Sept. 11 primary, was conducted July 8-10, just days after the school system's new chief executive officer, Andres Alonso, began his tenure. It has a margin of error of no more than 4 percentage points.

With less than two months until the Sept. 11 primary election, returning control of the schools to City Hall has emerged as a campaign issue. City Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr. has made the proposal a key issue in his bid to beat out other candidates - including incumbent Sheila Dixon - who are seeking the Democratic nomination for mayor. But poll results suggest that the issue has not ignited a groundswell of support for Mitchell.

While 42 percent of poll respondents said the mayor should have more control of the city schools, only 15 percent said they would vote for Mitchell in the Sept. 11 primary.

The city schools were controlled by the mayor until a decade ago, when partial control was ceded to the state in exchange for increased funding. Now, the mayor and the governor jointly appoint the school board that oversees the system. Critics, including Mitchell, say that structure has left neither side accountable.

Twenty percent of poll respondents said they liked the current structure, while 19 percent believe that the state should take over the city schools. Twenty percent weren't sure.

Dixon has indicated that she believes returning the city schools to the mayor's control might be the right move in time, as long as the state's financial contribution to the system would not be jeopardized.

Although Dixon has not campaigned on the issue as Mitchell has, the poll indicates that support for mayoral control of the schools is stronger among her backers than it is among Mitchell's.

Fifty-one percent of Dixon's supporters said they favored mayoral control of schools, compared with 37 percent of Mitchell's supporters. Only 19 percent of Dixon supporters said they like the current city-state partnership, compared with 30 percent of Mitchell's supporters.

Raabe said that public support of mayoral control of the schools benefits Dixon because she's the incumbent, even though Mitchell is the candidate who has made the issue part of the campaign.

Asked to grade the Baltimore public schools, 2 percent of respondents gave the system an A; 10 percent gave it a B; 32 percent chose C; 22 percent D; and 20 percent Fail, with 15 percent unsure. If the system were assigned a mean grade-point average based on the poll, it would be a 1.45, the equivalent of about a D-plus.

Thirty-eight percent of respondents said the city schools have been getting worse, compared with 15 percent who said they've been getting better and 35 percent who said they've stayed about the same. Twelve percent said they did not know.

Jo Ann Jenkins, a 46-year-old retired social worker who lives in the city's Ashburton neighborhood, said she doesn't see children with behavioral problems and learning disabilities getting the help they need. She believes that social promotion - the practice of passing a failing child from one grade to the next - is rampant in the city schools.

"They're just pushing them through just to say we didn't leave anybody behind," Jenkins said. "If you don't catch them in the first and second and third grades, they're destined to fail."

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