Examining a silver bullet

June 16, 1992

Turning over management of nine Baltimore public schools to a for-profit firm "appears to us right now to be a silver bullet" to improve education, Walter G. Amprey, the city's school superintendent, said last week.

The company, Educational Alternatives, Inc. (EAI), offers a plausible plan. In a system where so many things are working so badly, Dr. Amprey, the school board and Mayor Kurt Schmoke are correct to try new ideas. This one is particularly creative. Baltimore's willingness to move in a new direction has already created a positive impression about the city's commitment to improve its schools and attracted positive national publicity. This burst of favorable attention -- which is well-deserved -- is a needed tonic in a system with a severe image problem -- which is also deserved.

But hold on a minute. We're a long way from knowing whether this is "a silver bullet." In the spate of favorable commentary, two ideas seem to be taking hold, and these ideas may be dangerous.

The first is that EAI has a track record which shows it will be successful in Baltimore. In fact, its track record is not very long. EAI has successfully operated two private schools, one in Minnesota and one in Arizona, for several years. This past school year, it has managed an inner-city public school in Miami Beach, but under arrangements much different from those proposed for Baltimore. The Miami Beach school opened in a new building. EAI got to choose staff, and improvements were financed through private fund-raising. Initial impressions of the program are good, but it certainly has not been running long enough for rigorous evaluation.

The second is that EAI will be competing on equal footing with "regular" city public schools, providing a test of whether EAI's programs and management methods are better than those of the school bureaucracy. The letter of agreement between EAI and Dr. Amprey leaves several key points to be clarified. It is not clear EAI will be operating the same as other schools as to budget or staff selection and retention.

Regarding staff selection and retention, the letter of agreement says, "EAI will work with existing professional staff within each school, to the extent practicable." As for budget, things are not much clearer. EAI will get the city's per-pupil cost, but, as City Council President Mary Pat Clarke points out, "regular" schools don't get nearly that much. About a third goes for central administration and for other costs ranging from payroll to school lunch. EAI's letter says it could contract with the school system (or with outside firms) for such services, but does not spell out exactly what is involved.

These questions do not mean the experiment shouldn't be tried. It certainly should be. But they do mean that in setting the conditions for the experiment, the city needs to think carefully about what it wants to test. And in evaluating what works and why, the city needs to remember what was different about EAI schools and what was not.

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