A Courageous Step to Improve the Schools

TIM BAKER

June 15, 1992|By TIM BAKER

Two things happened last week that should make Mayor Schmoke feel better about his stewardship of the Baltimore public schools than he should have felt at any time since he took office in late 1987.

First, The Sun ran a remarkable week-long in-depth series of articles on the school system which portrayed in horrifying detail the educational deprivations which are the consequence of the inadequate resources available to the city schools.

Second, the mayor and his new school superintendent, Walter G. Amprey, announced a bold and innovative educational experiment -- a five-year program under which a private corporation will run nine schools at the same cost per-pupil as the city, but free of most of the city's stifling bureaucratic controls and incompetencies.

Together these two events highlight the central dilemma that has thwarted educational progress in Baltimore for decades -- the schools don't have enough money, but more money by itself won't do much good because the system is incapable of implementing the reforms necessary to ensure that any new money will be spent effectively.

The Sun's six-part series -- ''Bright Faces, Fading Dreams'' -- painted a grim picture of life in underfunded city schools. Empty libraries, children without textbooks, broken equipment, leaking ceilings, the stench of urine in the halls, the pervasive disruption caused by uncontrollable troublemakers.

It's important to point out that not every school in the system suffers from these conditions. But many do. Too many. It's hard to see how children can learn anything or even want to try when they go to schools like this.

The series, however, also showed the other side of the dilemma -- administrative quagmire. For example, the city schools' daunting problems and lower salary scales make it hard to recruit and keep the best teachers. But the system aggravates that disadvantage by giving its teachers little training or support. Then it simply won't or can't get rid of incompetent teachers. In the last six years, the schools have only succeeded in firing one of 4,500 tenured teachers. Only one! Every year hundreds of other bad teachers are just shuffled from one school to another in an annual ''March of Lemons.''

In this and in many other ways the city school system has protected mediocrity and frustrated reform. Until now the Schmoke administration has been neither able or willing to do very much about it.

With last week's announcement, however, the mayor and Dr. Amprey have committed the school system to a radical and promising challenge. Starting this September, Education Alternatives Inc., a private company based in Minneapolis, will take over eight elementary schools and one middle school. The company will use city teachers to implement its own educational program, which it has developed at the three schools it now runs in Minneapolis, Phoenix and Dade County, Florida.

This is a remarkable and courageous step, and Dr. Amprey has made it with characteristic enthusiasm. Look at what he's planning! He is going to set up a substantial alternative school system which will now compete with his own schools essentially on even terms. He runs the risk that his schools will lose.

Indeed, that's the whole idea. This bold experiment will succeed only if Educational Alternatives proves that it can run these nine schools more efficiently and more effectively than the city school system has. Then other schools can learn how the company did it.

This experiment could catapult Baltimore into the forefront of American educational reform. No other school system in the country has been willing to commit anywhere near this number of public schools to private management.

The move also raises the possibility that other city schools could be run by local universities and other organizations. The result would be an on-going process of friendly competition and experimentation in the search for school programs and structures that really work. Baltimore's school system could become a national model.

This new program also refutes some of the more cynical criticism of the mayor for his decision last month to bring a lawsuit to attack the legality of the persistent disparities existing be- tween city and suburban per-pupil school expenditures. Some people said he only wants to sue to divert attention from his own record of educational reform.

Mayor Schmoke, however, has never claimed that inadequate school funding is the only reason for the city school system's persistent failures. He knows he cannot run away from the vTC pressing need for radical reforms. That's why he has pushed for the new program he and Dr. Amprey announced last week.

There are other good programs under way in the Baltimore schools. The ''Futures Program'' has doubled the graduation rates of children most at risk of failure. The Barclay school's Calvert curriculum, Towson State University's ''Write to Learn'' and Johns Hopkins' ''Success for All'' programs are running well.

In addition, Dr. Amprey has brought in 65 teachers from ''Teach for America'' and another 20 who are former Peace Corps Volunteers.

These and other programs must be made to work. They will then encourage and justify substantial additional public investment in our urban public schools. Otherwise we will perpetuate in this land of equal opportunity the persistent disgrace of condemning our poorest and most disadvantaged children to our worst schools.

Tim Baker writes on issues of city and state.

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