Pressure grows to terminate EAI experiment

October 19, 1994|By Gary Gately and JoAnna Daemmrich | Gary Gately and JoAnna Daemmrich,Sun Staff Writers Sun staff writer Eric Siegel contributed to this article.

Support for Baltimore's pioneering school privatization venture eroded sharply yesterday amid evidence that pupil performance has deteriorated in elementary schools run by a for-profit company.

The new test data, which showed standardized scores have risen districtwide but declined over the past two years at schools run by Education Alternatives Inc., increased pressure to immediately halt the five-year "Tesseract" experiment.

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke rebuffed those suggestions yesterday, but said if "Tesseract" fails to yield significant improvements in // student performance, he would end the experiment as early as the next school year.

"As far as I'm concerned, it's not the end of the story," Mr. Schmoke said. "I certainly am not going to end the program just because of this. That would be acting in haste."

The city school system, meantime, explained last night that it had overstated gains at EAI-run elementary schools last spring because 1991 data had been used instead of 1994 data in making comparisons between results from last spring and the previous one.

The mayor said an independent evaluation is planned for next spring.

"I am not one who is inclined to stay on course when everything looks disastrous, but I don't think that's what we have here," he said. "I will be concerned if at the end of this academic year the results are also meager. We should let the contract remain in place until we get this evaluation, and then if they haven't done what they promised, we end the contract."

But critics of EAI said the discrepancies and lack of progress heighten doubts about school system claims of success for "Tesseract," which is in the third of a five-year city contract worth more than $140 million.

None of 11 council members interviewed yesterday expressed any confidence in the "Tesseract" experiment. Several urged an investigation of the discrepancy in the two sets of test scores released by the school system.

An 'outrage'

"I think this is an outrage," said 4th District Councilman Lawrence A. Bell III, who is requesting advice from City Solicitor Neal M. Janey on the city's options for ending its contract with EAI. "I think EAI has proceeded under false pretences. There is a tremendous credibility gap -- they have not been forthcoming, and they have misled us."

His colleague from the 4th District, Sheila Dixon, was among six council members who called for an immediate end to the contract. Third District Councilman Martin O'Malley said the administration was not wrong to hire EAI, but the contract has not produced results and should be terminated.

"I have to believe that this experiment has run its course. It's time to pull the plug on EAI," he said.

The "Tesseract" experiment has been a volatile political issue ever since EAI was awarded its contract two years ago. Soon after, the teachers' union lead the opposition. Yesterday's furor over test scores all but assures that school privatization will be a major issue in next year's citywide elections.

Council President Mary Pat Clarke, an EAI critic from the start who plans to challenge Mayor Schmoke next year, said: "This system cannot afford to squander its credibility and resources on a pilot project to the detriment of the schoolchildren. It seems that the course of action that makes sense is . . . an immediate termination."

Second District Councilman Carl Stokes, noting that the city would save at least $10 million a year if it killed the contract, called on the mayor to consider doing so -- or, at the very least, cut spending for the company and require achievement gains as a condition of allowing EAI to keep working in the city.

Several other announced and potential candidates for citywide office were among those criticizing the contract yesterday.

"The trends are not good," said 6th District Democrat Joseph J. DiBlasi, the first to officially file his candidacy for the council presidency. "It's up to [city schools Superintendent] Dr. [Walter G.] Amprey to justify why we should continue the contract."

But Mr. Schmoke dismissed some of the criticism as political posturing. "I don't recall anybody from the City Council saying we should have some dramatic change in the school system two years ago when the test scores were down in other schools that were not run by EAI."

"If they're doing better, why we don't see it on the test scores?" asked Rita Ridgley, president of the Baltimore City Council of PTAs. "I think they've had long enough. . . . For the money that they're spending, there should be big increases."

Another look urged

Even those council members who stopped short of calling for an immediate halt to the privatization venture said they want to take another look at EAI's performance.

"We really have to evaluate where we're going with the contract," said 4th District Councilwoman Agnes Welch. "We can't continue if this is the case."

As EAI stock fell 10 percent yesterday, to $18.375 cents a share, the company said it was surprised to learn of the overstated results.

Phillip E. Geiger, EAI's divisional president for the Maryland area, said EAI will evaluate and release more detailed test data for its schools here. The analysis, expected to be completed within a month, will document how many students improved and how many worsened. Thus far, the city has reported only averages for schools, and Dr. Geiger said that average is skewed by extremes at either end.

"We need to look at each and every student and ask: Have these kids, in fact, improved or not?" Dr. Geiger said.

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