The EAI feeding frenzy

October 20, 1994

Politicians can be really disgusting at times. Look at the feeding frenzy as City Council members are scrambling before television cameras to pronounce their verdict on test scores that are not rising at eight elementary schools that for the past two years have been run by for-profit Education Alternatives Inc.

Ever since the Baltimore Teachers Union and the American Federation of Teachers declared a holy war on EAI, attacking privatization has been a profitable topic for politicians. Unions give money, union members staff polling places. And Baltimore's city elections are just around the corner next year.

City Council members should be concerned by seemingly falling test scores at EAI schools. But in interpreting scores, caution is in order.

For starters, these first two years' scores reflect probably only one year of EAI operation -- the initial year having been a rather chaotic mess.

Second, the decrease of reading scores from 39.8 in 1992 to 37 last spring and math scores from 41.7 to 40 are relatively insignificant and could be attributed to a number of factors.

It may be politically advantageous for City Council members to demand instant cancellation of EAI's contract. But evidence to justify such a call is still incomplete. Certainly any talk about cancellation ought to wait until EAI performance has been assessed by recently hired outside evaluators.

Indeed, Superintendent Walter G. Amprey makes a persuasive case for continuing the EAI experiment until the expiration of the current contract in 1997, regardless of evaluations. After all, an evaluation is likely to show mixed results and recommend ways to correct deficiencies.

This newspaper has consistently been a strong supporter of public education. That support does not blind us. We recognize that for-profit educational delivery systems are likely to be a powerful force in future American education. Public schools will not disappear, but they will increasingly contract ancillary services from private firms. This change will be rapid once the new technologies now being developed are perfected and the transfer of data and images becomes easier and cheaper.

In our view, the Baltimore public school system made the right decision in changing its rigid anti-experimentation posture and welcoming rival concepts. A growing number of for-profit entrepreneurs -- ranging from Calvert School to Sylvan Learning Centers -- are now working with the school system. Like EAI, they are neither all-good nor all-bad.

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