Choice has long been exercised Choosing schools: Mayor Schmoke ignores the fact that plenty of competition is available for middle-class kids, and has been for decades.

The Education Beat

March 13, 1996|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

BALTIMORE'S population declined 6.1 percent between 1990 and 1995, while Howard County's increased 17 percent.

Much of that resulted from public school choice.

Ashburton Elementary School, in the heart of the city's premier black neighborhood, was placed on the dishonor roll in January by the state school superintendent, meaning it has been going steadily downhill academically for three years and needs reforming.

In large part, that's the result of school choice.

Ashburton resident and Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke attended one of the nation's top public high schools, City College, and sends his children to private schools.

That's exercising school choice.

For more than 150 years, the city has accommodated the children of its middle class (whites in the early days, both races now) in citywide schools such as City, Western and Poly. The common academic route is Roland Park Elementary/Middle School, followed by one of the citywide high schools or a private high school, of which Baltimore is blessed with a large supply.

That's the essence of school choice.

Forty-two percent of the city's teachers live outside the city, sending their children to suburban public schools or private and parochial schools.

That, too, is choice.

The point here is that when Mr. Schmoke proposes busting the public school "monopoly" by offering school "choices" to city students, he ignores the fact that plenty of competition is available for middle-class kids and has been for 16 decades.

"For poor people, the public schools are a monopoly," said Del. Howard P. "Pete" Rawlings, the West Baltimore Democrat who chairs the House Appropriations Committee.

"For the middle class," Mr. Rawlings added, "the public schools are far from a monopoly."

A couple of years ago, Delegate Rawlings and a few like-minded legislators sought a pilot school choice program in the city aimed at low-income students in low-performing schools.

It never got off the ground.

"We wanted to send a message to the city schools that they just weren't working for poor kids and their parents, who didn't have the same opportunity as the middle class or who couldn't negotiate their way through Roland Park," Mr. Rawlings said.

"That was my position, and people really couldn't refute it," he added. "But the bastion of the status quo was just too strong."

Mr. Schmoke has appointed a task force to fashion a school choice plan.

If the idea takes hold, Baltimore will be a latecomer to the choice movement.

There are plenty of models to choose from, in Milwaukee, Indianapolis and East Harlem, N.Y., about 20 states and several industrialized democracies notably Denmark, Holland and Australia.

Some of the plans involve vouchers redeemable at nonpublic schools as well as at public ones. Some plans apply only to public schools.

Some are run by traditional school bureaucracies, some by outside groups.

And because conservatives have made school choice a cause celebre, the movement has presented wonderful opportunities to education researchers and policy wonks.

Like most movements in education, school choice keeps coming around, about once each generation.

The social idealism of the 1960s gave birth to a number of choice plans, many paid for by the federal government, in the early 1970s.

The only large-scale voucher experiment, in Alum Rock, Calif., lasted five years and died when its federal funding ran out in 1977.

Nineteen years later, evidence remains of the voucher plan in Alum Rock schools, which still are poor and poorly performing.

If Mayor Schmoke seems to flit from blossom to blossom in the educational garden like a honeybee, it's because he is desperate, setting forth in his third term, to find a way to solve the seemingly intractable problems of city schools.

A few weeks ago, it was a "partnership" with the state that would bring new management to the schools. That blossom apparently wilted in the snows.

Now it's school choice.

But maybe something will come of it.

Mr. Schmoke's task force will want to look at other choice and voucher plans, and it will want to tackle the policy and philosophical questions surrounding the subject.

Who would administer a choice plan in Baltimore?

If it is to be the existing North Avenue bureaucracy, Mr. Rawlings is one critic who doesn't think the Walter G. Amprey-led crew is capable of managing a voucher plan.

What would be the effect of a choice plan on inner-city schools such as Lombard Middle?

That school's principal, Robert Hopkins, worried yesterday that a choice plan would deprive his school of brighter students and "leave us with the low achievers."

How would the city's nonpublic schools fit in? "We support choice by definition," said Sarah Donnelly, executive director of the Association of Independent Maryland Schools. "But we don't want choice forced on us."

Musical crossing

Baltimore and Baltimore County schools have never had much to do with each other, but tomorrow there's a rare crossing of the educational Maginot Line in the name of music.

Bolton Hill's Mount Royal Elementary and Middle School is sending its string orchestra to Riderwood Elementary in the county.

The orchestra will play for the Riderwood students. After pizza, the Riderwood chorus will perform for the city folks.

Pub Date: 3/13/96

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