School choice proposal stirs criticism Issuing vouchers to attend private schools is opposed

March 09, 1996|By JoAnna Daemmrich | JoAnna Daemmrich,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer Kathy Lally contributed to this article.

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke is casting his ambitious school reform proposal in simple terms: Choosing a school is the same right as choosing a job, a home, even a spouse.

Few disagree with the philosophy behind his call for radical change in Baltimore's faltering schools, but what bothers critics is how the choice will be made.

The possibility of handing out vouchers to defray tuition costs at private and parochial schools has generated the most controversy since Mr. Schmoke announced this week that he wants to force the public schools to improve through competition.

Vouchers are the most volatile issue in the school choice movement that has swept at least a dozen states as well as big cities from Milwaukee to New York.

Open enrollment has created little dissension, but opponents of vouchers have argued in court that their use violates First Amendment separation of church and state and leads to economic and racial segregation.

"If Baltimore allowed religious schools to be part of choice, you would immediately have the same result -- a court challenge," said John Witte, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin who has studied Milwaukee's school choice program.

While acknowledging the voucher option would "cause the greatest anxiety," Mr. Schmoke would not rule it out in charging a nine-member panel to evaluate school choice alternatives.

Mr. Schmoke has asked the group to consider open enrollment in public schools, vouchers and a scholarship program for poor children patterned after GI bills of the past. The mayor wants to have a plan in place by the 1997 school year.

At least two members of the task force made clear that they have strong misgivings about the use of vouchers -- as does Superintendent Walter G. Amprey.

Dr. Amprey issued a statement saying he would support a plan that gives parents more options without penalizing schools that have suffered from years of poor resources. But, he said, encouraging parents to abandon public schools that have deteriorated "would be no choice at all."

Kathy Shapiro, a school board member who is on the task force, said she fears the use of vouchers would funnel more public dollars from the financially strained schools. And Gertrude Williams, principal of the Barclay School -- hailed by the mayor as a bright spot in Baltimore education -- worried about greater divisions created by vouchers.

"You'll always have a group of people who won't take advantage of [vouchers]," she said. "But I think the mayor's on the right track. I think choice might work better at the high school level, where it's easier for children to travel."

School choice is the latest and most far-reaching of the mayor's attempts to rejuvenate Baltimore's education system. Mr. Schmoke, who made education his priority when he became mayor eight years ago, conceded this week that his efforts have failed to reverse the decline of public schools.

Four years ago, he pioneered a privatization venture that eventually collapsed amid criticism that the for-profit company had failed to boost student achievement at the nine schools it operated.

The mayor's call for studying school choice drew sharply divergent reactions, with some applauding it and others wondering if the school system is ready for a bold new experiment.

Tim Armbruster, director of the Baltimore Community Foundation, said schools should be expected to keep pace with the changing times. "Every other institution in society is looking at doing things in radically different ways," he said. But Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development, a church-based social action group, said schools lie at the heart of what creates a community and tampering with those ties could disrupt neighborhoods.

"It's really just giving up on the public school system," said the Rev. Roger Gench, pastor of Brown Memorial United Presbyterian Church and a BUILD leader.

And Del. Howard P. Rawlings, a Baltimore Democrat, questioned whether the school system is up to the challenge. "If it isn't within a structure that is well-managed, it will not in the end work toward the best interest of the kids," he said.

Pub Date: 3/09/96

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