HARTFORD, Conn. -- In barrooms and in classrooms, on street corners and on radio call-in shows, in the poorest neighborhoods and in the offices of power brokers, Baltimore's pioneering school privatization venture is the talk of this town.
The experiment that began two years ago in nine schools hundreds of miles away, stands at the center of a war here over control of the poverty-racked state capital's ailing school district. The battle pits the powerful, 850,000-member American Federation of Teachers union against Education Alternatives Inc., the Minnesota company that wants to manage Hartford's 32 public schools and $171.1 million school budget.
With all the trappings of a political campaign, two radically different versions of reality have saturated this city in a gaggle of sound bites, multimillion-dollar ad campaigns, emotional outbursts, claims and counterclaims.
In what is viewed as a national test on school privatization, both sides point to Baltimore's experiment. Supporters, many persuaded by Baltimore Superintendent Walter G. Amprey's testimonials here on EAI's behalf, see the experiment as an educational miracle in the making. Opponents call it a sham motivated by greed.
"This debate isn't just about the Hartford school system," said John B. O'Connell, a Republican on the City Council here. "This debate is about the direction and control of education for the '90s in America."
The teachers union sees EAI as part of an ominous movement toward abdicating public responsibility for public schools and pumping millions in taxpayers' money into an untested venture. Many teachers also view privatization as a direct threat to jobs, despite assurances none would be lost.
For EAI, Hartford represents a potential gateway to broad expansion and new contracts worth millions of dollars. Despite nationwide marketing and negotiations with more than a dozen school districts, EAI has yet to win a contract outside Baltimore since taking on the "Tesseract" schools in 1992.
The fate of the Hartford district now rests with the City Council, which must approve any contract to run the schools. After a 7-2 school board vote last Tuesday setting guidelines on hiring an outside company, the council now begins preparing requests for bids. EAI hopes to sign a five-year contract by July 1.
"A lot of people have suggested we can improve our schools by ourselves, but the fact is, if we could have, we would have long ago," said school board member Ted Carroll. "We concluded we need a new model for operating our school system."
Four blocks from Hartford's skyscrapers sits a mud-colored complex that houses a social service agency, a decrepit public library and the main building of the poorest school in the poorest city in Connecticut.
Inside the Sand School in the city's tough North End, the battered beige walls haven't seen fresh paint in years. Furniture is scarred and stained; the few carpets frayed or falling apart. Tattered books, most of them decades old, fill a tiny library.
And in the hallway, samples of students' writing hang on the wall. The title of the class exercise: "How it Makes Me Feel When There are Termites in My Classroom."
Outside, in the shadows of brick tenements, the playground offers little escape from the urban ravages. Earlier this school year, parents collected what children at play picked up -- then handed school board members a bag full of the syringes and spent bullet casings.
All of which makes Susie B. Hinton wince.
"How long would you be willing to stand and hit your head against that wall, recognizing that each blow is going to cause pain?" says Ms. Hinton, the Sand School's principal. "That's what we've been doing for decades with public education."
She welcomes EAI's bid, she says, because without outside help, the downward spiral will continue. Ms. Hinton says she finds particularly appealing EAI's emphasis on repairing schools, involving parents and developing "personal education plans" tailored to each child's needs and progress.
"For the first time in my 30 years in Hartford, I feel like we're being forced to center our attention on children and make children the center of what we're about," she says. "The debate -- all that's going on right now -- is going on because we have failed in our efforts for children."
The failure extends throughout Connecticut's largest school district. Standardized test scores consistently rank worst in the state. Half of the students who enter high school never graduate, and 75 percent are considered "at-risk" of not graduating and failing to acquire basic skills needed to get a job or go to college.
Because of a perennial shortage of cash, decrepit schools have gone without basic repairs for years, and budget cuts have eliminated hundreds of positions, staff development and programs such as dropout-prevention and remedial reading.