Let bureaucracy go and let the people in to form their personal, chartered schools


May 05, 1991|By Neal Peirce and Curtis W. Johnson

Imagine a group of teachers eager to get to work every morning, and a principal eager to see them because he chose them and enjoys working with them.

Imagine students showing up enthusiastically because it's the school that they and their parents chose -- not one that some distant bureaucrat assigned.

Imagine an elementary school in which the lights of curiosity don't flicker out in kids' eyes by the fifth grade. A school whose teachers believe passionately that even children from the most disadvantaged families can learn.

Imagine a group of new, smaller high schools in which every teacher knows every student. Perhaps one high school devoted to the new career front of biotechnology or communications. Or a school that prizes a traditional curriculum of Latin, English, literature. Or a school devoted to exploring African-American culture and producing the most talented young black leaders it can.

Imagine schools like these -- in Baltimore!

We propose giving permission to any qualified group -- teachers, administrators, a university or social service or neighborhood organization -- to form a public charter school.

Baltimore and its surrounding counties already offer lots of ways for people affluent or mobile enough to find the school they'd like best. With enough money, choice is all yours. The public charter school is designed to bring choice and quality to students where they live -- even students from the poorest families.

Charter schools would operate 100 percent with public funding. We suggest they be financed by the state government and permitted in Baltimore or any county of the state. For each child they enroll, they should be paid the average total cost of educating a public school child in Maryland. The state and district of residence ought to share the cost.

If Baltimoreans would like a model for charter schools, a rather good one is already here: the Baltimore School for the Arts. Though it's officially under the school bureaucracy, it doesn't operate that way. The principal can hire and fire teachers as he deems best. Part-time teachers can be brought on board. The school is a place of warmth and color, perhaps the best integrated in the area. Not surprisingly, its motivated students do well in school and well afterward.

Public charter schools would be free of the mountain of pedagogical micromanagement that's usually imposed on public schools. Nobody would tell them how to get their results. But they would be measured, through state-ordered testing, for the results -- the achievement of their students. The results would be public knowledge. If they didn't show achievement, they couldn't expect to survive. Fail to offer a truly excellent, competitive school, and in time their student base would drift away.

Of course it's true that an effort to win approval of charter schools would be a tough political battle. It's safe to predict monumental resistance from defenders of the educational status quo.

Would the struggle be worth it? We think so. We encountered, in our interviews, an avalanche of bitter complaint and damning criticism of Baltimore's school system. A good part, but not all, of the complaint centered on the school system's 600-person administrative staff on North Avenue. (See accompanying article.)

Remember, the city's children lag a year and a half or more behind the rest of Maryland's youngsters. Their absentee rates are double the statewide average. Half drop out before graduation.

When public confidence in a public institution sinks so low, incremental reforms and improvements just won't do. Promises of improvements by political leaders won't do. A new school superintendent won't suffice. Basic structural change becomes imperative.

The Baltimore public schools do have some defenders. They acknowledge the problems with Baltimore's schools are severe, but then they offer up a whole range of explanations.

The first relates to money. Baltimore's a poor city, with half the tax base, per child, that the surrounding counties enjoy. The city is home to nearly half the disadvantaged children in the entire state.

When J. Edward Andrews came from Montgomery County to become the city's deputy superintendent, he decided to do something dramatic to illustrate how the city kids get shortchanged. He persuaded a bank to lend him $40,000 for a few hours. Then he went to a state hearing and threw the money on the table to show how much more, per classroom, other Maryland districts have, and Baltimore doesn't, to run its schools.

Maryland has three programs to "equalize" school spending between rich and poor areas. They help Baltimore, but not

enough. Other state programs -- state subsidies for teachers' retirement and Social Security payments, for example -- actually benefit the wealthiest districts the most. A big new Maryland-wide equalization program, scheduled to be phased in during the early '90s, may now be postponed for years due to the state's fiscal woes.

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