Baltimore City is giving a multi-million dollar contract to Education Alternatives Inc., a private, for-profit corporation. EAl's business is education.
After operating two private schools, EAl apparently has decided that there is a lucrative market in running public schools. Last year, it contracted to take over one in Dade County, Fla.
Obviously, this one-year experiment was such an unqualified success that Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and Superintendent of Schools Walter G. Amprey have decided to turn over nine Baltimore City schools to EAl.
Educational Alternatives promises not only to bring an excellent educational experience to these schools, but to do this with no more money than they currently receive.
In fact, it claims it will not only bring to these schools additional teachers, computers and resources, but do so while realizing a profit.
This is quite an astounding claim, especially in light of the mayor's recent announcement of the city's intention to sue the state for more school funding.
One could ask why the city is suing the state, if the city believes that someone can run the schools at the current level of funding and make a profit.
The point here, however, is not to question the need for a fairer and more equitable funding formula for the state's poorer jurisdictions. Baltimore City's school system needs and deserves more money from Maryland. The state should, once and for all, meet its moral and financial responsibility.
Nor is the point here to question what seems, on the face of it, to be a self-defeating legal strategy on the city's part.
Beyond EAl's capacity or credibility and the city's legal strategy lies a more fundamental question. Should the city turn its public schools into a profit-making venture?
Some answers to this from Dr. Amprey and others have ranged from,''This is not a privitizing venture,'' to, ''This is no big deal; the school system contracts out many services for profit, like textbooks and supplies.''
The belief that the answer to our troubled public schools lies in the free-enterprise system continues to gain momentum.
President Bush believes that public schools will improve if they have to compete in the marketplace for funds. He proposes to give selected families $1,000 a year for them to shop around.
The common thread that runs through George Bush's and EAl's philosophy is the supremacy of the marketplace. The problem with this belief is that it lifts the marketplace into a realm where it does not belong.
Capitalism is the most effective way we know of accumulating capital. It is not, however, a value system. The bottom line in a money-making venture is profit. The turn to the market sector to bail out the public sector is dangerous.
What it says is that we have given up on belief in the common good; that absent the profit motive, we cannot motivate people to perform with excellence.
Over the past two decades, the leadership of our country has put tremendous emphasis on the development of economic and political capital. What has been neglected is the development of social capital.
We are wasting this precious commodity as we denigrate the public sector and glorify the marketplace.
The rights and obligations that underlie the meaning of citizenship, the concept of public servant and service, the meaning and importance of critical thinking and debate are crucial to the development of a healthy and vibrant society .
This is supposed to be the bedrock of a public education, an education made available to all.
But the bottom line for a business must be realizing a profit.
Robert Okun, a conservative economist, said it best when he said that while the marketplace has a very important place in our society, society must keep it in its place.
Public schools are not its place.
Arnold Graf, regional director of the Industrial Areas Foundation, is an organizer of Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development (BUILD).