Lessons from EAI

June 06, 1995

Educating Baltimore's children is so important that the topic should not become an election-year football. As a series of articles in The Sun makes all too clear, there have been only mixed results at best in nine troubled public schools managed by a private company, Education Alternatives Inc., for the past three years.

With a mayoral primary in September only three months away, it must be tempting for Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke to consider drastic changes in the costly contract. It would win him points with the Baltimore Teachers Union, for instance, which has been out to sabotage EAI from the start. And Mr. Schmoke's chief Democratic challenger, City Council President Mary Pat Clarke, sees political gain in calling for an end to the EAI contract.

Yet there have been some unexpected advances since EAI's arrival.

The private firm's entry into Baltimore three years ago was so controversial that it prompted profound soul searching among educators. Faced with new competition, teachers at many non-EAI schools began performing better. With two years of its contract still remaining, EAI itself has been changing its methods and hopes to achieve better results. Future tests are likely to show progress. If they do not, then it is time to try something else. But it is imperative that any transition from EAI is well planned and orderly.

In fact, even if the contract with EAI is eventually terminated, the city would be foolish to discard certain methods pioneered by the Minnesota firm. The EAI experiment has proven beyond any question that the physical plants and school cafeterias are better maintained when they are contracted to outside specialists and not part of a principal's headache.

As the series by reporters Mike Bowler, Gary Gately and James Bock suggests, some of EAI's academic problems can be

attributed to city decisions that saddled it with existing faculty and a rigid and outdated curriculum used by the rest of the school system. Yet the example of Barclay Elementary School, Baltimore's public education turnaround success, shows that a different approach (the Calvert curriculum in Barclay's case) is absolutely essential. Why Superintendent Walter Amprey isn't keen on curriculum reform is puzzling.

The EAI experiment has revealed a shocking weakness in Baltimore's education department -- an inability to negotiate advantageous contracts and manage finances. With government revenues shrinking, fiscal acumen and a tough manager are sorely needed. But most of all, education needs to be insulated from the perils of a political campaign. The time to consider what to do about EAI is after the election when the next mayor can calmly decide how best to help the city's troubled schools.

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