Schmoke looks to right in bid to save city schools Mayor cites influence of conservative book

March 11, 1996|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,SUN STAFF

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke was deeply influenced by a conservative Washington think tank in his decision last week to experiment with parental choice in Baltimore's public school system.

As he agonized over his efforts to improve the quality of education in Baltimore, Mr. Schmoke said in an interview, he came back time and again to the work of the Cato Institute, a foundation with a libertarian bent that promotes freeing American life from excessive government encroachment.

Mr. Schmoke read a Cato Institute book on school choice and found himself underlining phrases such as "competitive market economy" and "tax credits or tax refunds" for parents who want alternatives to the "public school monopoly."

In American politics, those themes tend to be embraced by Republicans, not Democratic mayors of solidly Democratic cities. One of the mayor's aides even joked that he wanted to see Mr. Schmoke's voter registration card, to make sure he was still a Democrat.

But, Mr. Schmoke said, he was desperately seeking solutions for the city's school system, which he committed himself to improve when he first ran for mayor in 1987. He was so frustrated at his lack of success, he said, that he began looking at less traditional solutions. He began to look past labels.

"What's led me here is that I've been reflecting on my own efforts of the past two terms to achieve the goal of making Baltimore the city that reads," he said, "and trying to figure out where we've had some successes and where we've had failures."

Wading through school reform literature, the mayor came upon a book called "Liberating Schools -- Education in the Inner City," edited by David Boaz, executive vice president of the Cato Institute.

"That one I kept coming back to," Mr. Schmoke said.

Mr. Boaz compares U.S. school systems to the former Soviet Union's planned economy and calls for applying free-market principles to them -- including vouchers or tax credits that would allow parents to spend their education dollars as they choose, on private or public schools.

"We have run our schools the way the Soviet Union and its client states ran their economies, and the results have been just as disillusioning," he says. "But if the Berlin Wall came down, surely we can liberate American students from the public school monopoly."

Gorbachev's painful lesson

Mr. Boaz argues that school systems must come to terms with the lesson former Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev learned so painfully, a lesson that precipitated the Soviet collapse: "Bureaucratic monopolies don't work, and reform won't fix them." The mayor underlined those words in Mr. Boaz's book. He also underlined: "We have no way of knowing, in the absence of market competition, which is the best system the world has yet discovered for testing and comparing alternative methods of production and distribution."

He noted a passage in the book citing a study that found that many public schoolteachers send their children to private school. In Baltimore, the study says, about a quarter of Baltimore's public schoolteachers choose to send their children to private schools.

And Mr. Schmoke underlined another passage with deep

resonance for the mayor of a city with thousands of children living in poverty: "Education used to be a poor child's ticket out of the slums; now it is part of the system that traps people in the underclass."

Those themes resounded for Mr. Schmoke, who has been under harsh attack in the General Assembly and state Education Department for an unresponsive school bureaucracy and poor school performance. State officials assert that the city school system spends its money inefficiently and fails at educating too many of its children. Mr. Schmoke concedes that there are problems with the bureaucracy, but he also argues that Baltimore schools are hampered by insufficient funding.

He kept coming back to the bureaucracy, though, and how to shake it up. He wanted to promote innovation. And he kept returning to competition.

His own experiment with privatization, he said, helped convince him that competition was a necessary element to any new school plan. Even though the city recently terminated its contract with Education Alternatives Inc., the for-profit company that ran nine city "Tesseract" schools, the mayor said he learned an important lesson from that failure.

"With the Tesseract schools, we had an interesting experiment," he said, "and if it failed, we could just shut it down and move on to something else. But when we have poor performing public schools, if they fail the students, nothing happens. Nothing meaningful, that is."

Mr. Schmoke said the introduction of the EAI-run Tesseract schools produced competition among other public schools.

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