Not the Way to Do It, BTU

May 13, 1994

If you count the things that are wrong with the Baltimore Teachers Union's petition drive to limit class size in Baltimore's public schools, you'll quickly run out of fingers. The idea is wrong procedurally, philosophically and practically. Not to mention that it's illegal.

The union, which represents city teachers in collective bargaining, wants voters to approve a city charter amendment that would limit pre-school classes to 22, elementary classes to 25, middle school classes to 28 and high school classes to 33. Such a move, if a court ever approved it, would commit the city to hiring nearly 1,000 teachers and cost some $30 million.

That's where the illegal part comes in. Aside from the spectacle of setting specific school policy in what amounts to the constitution of Baltimore -- a document that should spell out only the fundamental laws and principles of government -- this campaign could result in the commitment of millions of dollars in public funds. There is no way that could happen. Even if the BTU succeeded in gathering 10,000 signatures to put class-size limits on the ballot this fall, we doubt any court would approve such an arrangement. The city Law Department says it would be illegal to amend the charter for this purpose. Such school policies are the province of the State Board of Education.

Members of the BTU work under trying conditions, although large classes are hardly new in the city. There were larger classes in the 1940s, when a much higher percentage of school employees was teaching, and in the 1970s, when enrollment was nearly twice as large as it is now and many schools were on double shifts.

Moreover, class size isn't the only problem resulting from the long-standing neglect of Baltimore schools -- and it might not be the problem that most urgently needs fixing. Perhaps a more urgent need is more up-to-date textbooks or computers. (Why not a charter amendment requiring a computer in every classroom?) Perhaps it's more urgent that teachers be trained to handle large classes. Superintendent Walter G. Amprey correctly says the best approach is to establish priorities and carefully tailor programs to meet them. The Baltimore Teachers Union is ** not charged by law with doing either.

The teachers, though, do have an important stake in city schools, and their frustration is palpable. "I'm begging for the lives of our children," said one teacher supporting the charter amendment. For too long, teachers have had to deal with crowded classrooms, weapons, unruly students and drugs. But none of those conditions will be relieved by an amendment to the city constitution.

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