City school plan criticized as too vague and timid

September 11, 1990|By Will Englund

Baltimore's plan to shift control of education away from the central headquarters and back to individual public schools was criticized last night as too vague and too timid.

The decentralization proposal, which was put together at the instigation of the Baltimore Teachers Union, would begin as a pilot program at 20 schools next year. The city school board, which plans to act on the proposal Sept. 20, is holding a series of hearings this week to gauge public opinion.

Last night's hearing, in the auditorium of the Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, attracted just two speakers.

Jerry Baum, executive director of the Fund for Educational Excellence, said he supported the decentralization plan, which would "give people at the school level a greater opportunity to be creative."

But Susan Leviton, president of Advocates for Children and Youth Inc., gave a fairly detailed criticism of the proposal.

"Restructuring is a very exciting proposal," she said. "But the plan is not as effective as it could be."

She pointed out that decentralization was often tried in the 1960s, usually without much success. Research on those attempts, she said, provides certain lessons:

*Specific areas of authority should be quickly transferred from the central office to the schools.

Ms. Leviton said the Baltimore plan is vague on just what authority the schools would gain and calls for a gradual phase-in. She said this would lead to frustration.

The city's proposal would allow schools to apply for waivers from school board policy and from union rules. Ms. Leviton said it is not clear how this is to be done or how quickly the requests would be acted upon.

Schools, she said, should be granted specific authority over budgeting, staffing, curriculum and textbooks.

*There must be very clear goals for student achievement.

The Baltimore plan calls for schools to be assessed on the effectiveness of the decentralization, or "restructuring," and on the performance of students according to state and national measures. But Ms. Leviton argued that no goals have been set, and there are no remedies for poor performance or rewards for outstanding performance.

*Training of school staff and parents should be done by outsiders who know something about decentralization.

Ms. Leviton criticized the Baltimore proposal for relying on staff people from the central office. The whole point of decentralization, she noted, is to reduce and change the role of the central office because bureaucracy is perceived to be the problem. She questioned having bureaucrats do the training.

*Accountability for results should be clear.

The Baltimore plan insists that school councils -- made up of teachers, parents, community representatives and the principal -- should guide the school and should do so by consensus. That is, decisions should be made that everyone can go along with, so there are no "losers."

Ms. Leviton said successful decentralization plans invariably put either the teachers or the principal in charge of a school. "Consensus doesn't work," she said. "You spend all your time reaching consensus. You have to know at some point you're going to hold somebody accountable."

Afterward, Irene Dandridge, president of the Baltimore Teachers Union and one of the architects of the plan, took exception to Ms. Leviton's criticisms. She defended the gradual approach of the plan, which calls for the 20-school experimental program to be carried out over three years before any thought is given to expansion.

"Can you imagine 177 schools all doing their own thing at one time?" she asked. "With no training? We are being very, very careful, giving people time to get settled in their roles before we make 50,000 changes in the school. People are not going to stick with it unless they feel comfortable."

She also insisted that requiring all school councils to reach consensus on their decisions was workable. She noted that the designers of the proposal -- including representatives of her union, the principals' union, the school system administration and the church-based group called BUILD -- worked from consensus.

Mr. Baum agreed with the teachers union president. "Each person must feel they have a stake in the process," he said.

The board will hold two more hearings on the proposal: at 6 p.m. tomorrow at Edmondson/Westside High School and at 6 p.m. Thursday at the North Avenue headquarters.

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