Little more than two years after enthusiastically embracing Baltimore's school-privatization venture, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke last night told Education Alternatives Inc. that its future here depends on improving student achievement.
"Ultimately the success or failure of Tesseract is going to be determined for most people by the academic performance of the children. That's what I wanted to emphasize tonight," Mr. Schmoke said, after meeting privately with EAI chief John Golle and Superintendent Walter G. Amprey at City Hall.
"Our system has been judged for so long by how our kids do on these tests that we cannot ignore the fact that the test scores are going to be a significant determinant in the success or failure."
Mr. Schmoke said EAI presented new data that suggested improved student performance over the past two years. EAI's assessment sharply contrasted with school system statistics that showed overall average test scores declined for the eight EAI schools while rising districtwide during the experiment's first two years.
The mayor emphasized that EAI's fate here would depend primarily on the results of an independent evaluation by Center for Educational Research at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, which recently began its review of Tesseract.
Emerging from the hour-long meeting, Mr. Golle said he had no concerns that the five-year, $140 million contract, now in its second year, might be killed. He also questioned the city's test scores. "There's a lot of problems with the integrity of the data," he said. "We are investigating that right now."
EAI is working with nine independent testing experts to provide a more detailed look at each student's performance and length of time in a Tesseract school. Results are to be released within a week, he said.
Pointing to gains in attendance, parental involvement, condition of buildings and claiming satisfaction among more than 90 percent of teachers, Mr. Golle added: "We are more than pleased to stand on the record."
Dr. Amprey refused to answer reporters' questions.
Union leaders, who joined Mr. Golle and Dr. Amprey, continued their criticism of the program. Irene Dandridge, president of the 8,500-member Baltimore Teachers Union, said she was unimpressed by what she heard about EAI. "We want them out; there's no doubt about it," she said. "We think that they are no good for our children. . . . The children in the Tesseract schools are just not measuring up, and that is not [the children's] fault."
Last night's meeting, called by Mr. Schmoke, came at a time of mounting doubts about EAI's central claim -- that it would dramatically improve student performance for the same amount of money. This week's revised test results intensified critics' opposition, leading some to call for an immediate end to the contract.
On Wednesday, Dr. Amprey dismissed the criticism as a product of union gripes and political posturing and discounted the importance of test scores alone as a measure of the "Tesseract" experiment's success.
EAI's experience appeared more promising in June, when the school system released preliminary results showing gains in reading and math. But Monday, school officials admitted a clerical error led to overstating that progress.
Dr. Amprey has strongly denied critics' suggestion that the district rushed to release the inflated results in June to boost EAI's chances of winning a contract in Hartford, Conn.
Hartford had been negotiating with EAI in June, and its school board voted this month to give the for-profit Minnesota company control of the entire 32-school district and its $200 million annual budget.
This week, some Baltimore City Council members and other detractors called for a halt to EAI's contract. Dr. Amprey delivered his strongest attack.
EAI also is contracting out for a much more detailed analysis of test scores expected to be completed in a few weeks.