Into a Political School Year

September 10, 1994

When Baltimore City's 178 public schools opened on Thursday, a new year of intense learning started for some 113,000 pupils. At least that's the instructional plan, which calls for management innovations and more accountability.

The trouble overshadowing this is that Baltimore is rapidly moving into an electioneering mode in advance of next year's municipal voting. The school system will be in the thick of the politicking.

The battle lines are clearly drawn: Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and Dr. Walter G. Amprey, the superintendent for the past three years, will continue their push for experimenting with privatization and alternative management contracts for some schools. Meanwhile, Mr. Schmoke's challenger, City Council President Mary Pat Clarke, is on the warpath against giving instructional contracts to private firms.

With all the political fireworks, this will be a contentious academic year. As usual, the children of Baltimore City's underfunded public schools are likely to suffer from all the noise and distraction.

The Baltimore Teachers Union, which represents many of the 9,000 instructional personnel, is no neutral bystander.

It feels the Schmoke administration's privatization efforts -- particularly at the nine schools where instruction has been contracted to a private firm called Education Alternatives Inc. -- are eroding union clout. The Baltimore experiment is seen as so threatening to teachers' organizations nationwide that the American Federation of Teachers has made defeating privatization here its top priority.

We especially urge the city's rank-and-file teachers to remember that their first responsibility is to the children. There has been so much chaos and so many disruptions in the past that those children can ill afford another year in which learning becomes a hostage of political jockeying.

This newspaper supports Dr. Amprey in his difficult task of trying turn around the public schools. Improving public education in Baltimore is so pivotal for the city's, if not the region's, future economic and psychological well-being that no sabotage of his work should be tolerated.

Many city teachers do heroic work in unenviable circumstances. However, the overall system -- like school systems throughout Maryland -- is under a state mandate to rejuvenate itself or face official sanctions. This spells new challenges for individual teachers and their union, which for too long has been trying to excuse inadequate performers.

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