City schools in a crossfire

September 06, 1994

As a new school year starts Sept. 8, city schools Superintendent Walter G. Amprey has not only the education of 113,000 pupils to worry about. After three years on the hot seat, he faces report card time himself.

In fact, the way Baltimore's 178 public schools are run is likely to be one of the key controversies in the municipal elections next year.

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke himself has repeatedly made education a big issue ever since his election seven years ago.

Now the Schmoke administration's -- and Dr. Amprey's -- stewardship of the schools is increasingly coming in for questioning by City Council President Mary Pat Clark, who is opposing the mayor's quest for a third term.

The battle lines are clear: As a mayoral candidate, Ms. Clarke is a tireless critic of the course the Schmoke administration has taken in trying to turn around the city's troubled schools.

She is against measures under which 14 schools have now contracted private, for-profit companies to provide instructional services or management.

In contrast, Messrs. Schmoke and Amprey support further experimentation with privatization moves. Their belief is that the current system is so flawed it has to be shaken up.

This disagreement over the course of public education in the city is not merely a political squabble. Because the local Baltimore Teachers Union feels its prerogatives and clout are undermined, the experiment in Baltimore is gaining nationwide attention.

The American Federation of Teachers sees privatization as such a threat it has designated Baltimore as a city where the trend must be stopped.

For all the reasons outlined above, this school year promises to be a turbulent one.

There is nothing wrong with a debate about education. But in a way, the Maryland school systems are beyond debate. They are under a state mandate to shape up or face dire consequences.

In the worst-case scenario, failing schools may even be taken over by the state. "Clearly, the pressure is there, and it's intense," one teacher said, summing up the sentiments of Maryland's more than 45,000 public school teachers.

In Baltimore City, the takeover of failing Douglass and Patterson high schools by private operators was narrowly avoided in the spring. But the issue is not dead.

We have consistently supported Dr. Amprey in his efforts to revitalize Baltimore City's schools. That mission has to succeed, because the consequences of a continuing failure are too horrible to contemplate.

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