Mayor wants school choice for families Schmoke to appoint task force to study education overhaul

'Parents can vote with feet'

Initiative comes as state seeks more control of city system

March 07, 1996|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer JoAnna Daemmrich contributed to this article.

Conceding that his attempts to improve the Baltimore school system have been mostly futile, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke said yesterday that he wants to offer parents a choice of where they send their children to school in the hope that competition will force schools to reform or shut down.

Mr. Schmoke said he was not committed to a specific plan, but was convinced that only deep and radical change would bring about the kind of school improvement he has sought.

"I'm trying not to paint the whole school system with the brush of incompetence and failure," the mayor said, "because I don't think that's the case. But there are too many of our children who are not being served to allow me to put my head in the sand and say all is well."

Mr. Schmoke said he wants to consider all options, no matter how controversial or complicated.

School choice is a volatile issue in the education reform debate. Several court cases are under way across the nation, testing the constitutionality of various forms of choice.

The mayor plans to appoint a nine-member task force today and give it a broad charge to study everything from establishing new schools to proposing vouchers that would enable parents to use tax dollars to defray the cost of tuition at private or parochial schools.

"Essentially, there are no consequences to poor performance under our current model," Mr. Schmoke said. "And to me, that has to change if we're going to get true reform in our system."

He acknowledged that his decision to advocate parental choice was bound to be controversial, as was an idea he presented a few years ago to decriminalize some drug use. But he said he was no longer satisfied with tinkering with the system.

"I'm trying to lay out the options, focusing on accountability and what we do with poor performance," he said. "I am hoping to encourage discussion after what might be some initial flurry of condemnation. I want a thoughtful discussion on this. I hope the debate doesn't get shouted down by those who will say the mayor is trying to destroy the system."

Mr. Schmoke planned to make his thoughts public today in a speech in the Community Conversations Breakfast Series sponsored by the Johns Hopkins University. The breakfasts bring leaders from government, business, academia and nonprofit agencies together to discuss city and regional issues.

"I'm just persuaded after reading a lot of different books and articles on this that this is something that we should seriously consider," Mr. Schmoke said. "This is consistent with empowering parents. It gives them really meaningful consumer choice and an ability to force a poor-performing school to close. Parents can vote with their feet."

Mr. Schmoke, who spoke yesterday in an interview, suggested that parental choice was not inconsistent with negotiations aimed at establishing a city-state partnership to run the schools.

But the partnership, perceived as a state takeover by many city residents and leaders, has been a state proposal. With parental choice, Mr. Schmoke is trying to seize the initiative.

He said he had discussed his idea with Del. Howard P. Rawlings, a Baltimore Democrat and severe critic of the city school system management.

"This issue goes beyond management," Mr. Schmoke said. "It's my belief that if we change the structure up at the top we'd still have to deal with the question of poorly performing teachers. That's what I'm trying to get to. Management is important, but it doesn't resolve all questions of poor performance."

The mayor said Mr. Rawlings had introduced a parental choice bill in the legislature involving vouchers a few years ago and was overwhelmed by negative reactions. "He got beat up on it," Mr. Schmoke said, "but his response was, 'This is worth discussion.' "

Christopher T. Cross, president of the state school board and a lead negotiator in the talks with the city, said the mayor's proposal could fit in well with the partnership proposal.

"They are not mutually exclusive," he said. "You could have within a restructured system a variety of ways to approach it."

Mr. Schmoke said his superintendent of schools, Walter G. Amprey, is opposed to school choice, and the school board is split.

City Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr., chairman of the council's education committee, has been asked to serve on the task force. "I'm going in it with an open mind," said Mr. Mitchell, who represents West Baltimore.

Different school choice plans have been tried across the nation, but there's no blueprint for Baltimore to follow. Milwaukee has one of the most extensive programs, including providing vouchers to 1,000 children of poor families each year to go to private schools.

Studies of the Milwaukee voucher program have shown mixed results, said John Witte, a professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin. Parents generally were pleased, but test scores showed little effect, he said.

"A lot of school districts have allowed choice through magnet programs for a long time," Mr. Witte said.

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