'Choice' and the Catholic schools Many choices: Mayor Schmoke's task force investigating school choice should consider Catholic schools and semi-independent public schools, among other options.

The Education Beat

April 14, 1996|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

Correction and clarification

The superintendent of Catholic schools in Baltimore is Ronald J. Valenti, not Robert J. Apologies to Dr. Valenti.

We also said last Sunday that the citywide high schools were at capacity. According to headquarters at North Avenue, four of them are more than 80 percent full. As of Wednesday, however, Edmondson-Westside Senior High was at 64 percent of capacity, Western at 71 percent, Mergenthaler at 68 percent and Poly at 42 percent.

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke wants to change the face of public education in Baltimore by greatly expanding the school choices available to parents.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

He has appointed a task force headed by City Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr. and given the panel a long leash to look at a range of possibilities, from handing parents vouchers good for admission to public or nonpublic schools to freeing people to establish semi-independent schools of their own.

Here are some things for the task force to consider:

The city's Catholic schools are ready and willing -- if the courts allow public money to follow students to church-related schools.

That's a big "if" now being tested in Wisconsin, where a 5-year-old voucher plan in Milwaukee will be expanded to parochial schools if it passes a First Amendment challenge.

Baltimore has 29 Catholic elementary schools and 10 Catholic secondary schools enrolling 10,600 students. Most Catholic schools have extra capacity, says archdiocesan Superintendent Robert J. Valenti, who estimates there are 1,800 to 2,000 seats available in city Catholic schools.

"If we are really sincere about enabling parents to choose the schools their children attend, Catholic schools would have to be included," says Dr. Valenti.

The city's religious schools -- there are a smattering of others, including Islamic and Jewish ones -- are small; Catholic elementary schools have an average of 232 students and an average tuition of about $2,300, less than half the cost for each pupil in a public school.

The Catholics also have experience in educating city children. Their schools, several of which are black and predominantly non-Catholic, date to the early 19th century, a half-century before the city public system was established.

Baltimore has a rich heritage of nonsectarian private schools, but most of them are full and selective in admissions. This does not mean, though, that these schools welcome a mechanism that would hasten the complete abandonment of Baltimore schools by the middle class.

"My limited experience is that families with the resources take advantage of programs offering choice and get themselves in the better places," says David Jackson, headmaster of Park School and a former public school superintendent. "Efforts to distribute power in a community haven't, by and large, contributed to improvement of the overall system."

Educators at independent schools, like their counterparts in the parochial schools, speak of the need to break down the walls between public and private education, and all of them are under intense pressure to diversify student bodies.

Archibald R. Montgomery IV, headmaster of Gilman School, says he likes the idea of a choice plan because it "might enable us to stretch our scholarship dollars further and serve more students in need. We are in a symbiotic relationship with the city schools. If the city dies on the vine, Gilman dies on the vine."

If a choice plan is limited to the public schools, there isn't much extra capacity in popular citywide public schools such as Poly and the School for the Arts.

The task force might have to recommend some sort of a lottery to make the selection process fair. Such an approach might require busing. Busing is costly.

Nor does Baltimore, unlike Milwaukee when it launched its voucher scheme, have a lot of empty school space.

"But there's plenty of room in the city if we don't think of a school in the traditional sense with yellow school buses sitting in front of it," says Douglas P. Munro, director of the Calvert Institute for Policy Research, a conservative think tank recently established in Charles Village.

Robert C. Embry Jr., whose Abell Foundation has been examining the school choice concept for seven years, says the most "exciting option is to give people a real choice in the type of school they want and in who runs it."

The model is already here in the Stadium School, a semi-independent public school established in 1994 by teachers and residents around Memorial Stadium. The school is operated by public funds but makes many of its own personnel and curriculum decisions.

"If we take this route," says Mr. Embry, "the possibilities are endless. Schools could be set up and run by Hopkins or a group of teachers and parents, or by an existing staff."

It's useful for the task force to remember that the central bureaucracy initially resisted the Stadium School, as it did virtually every other departure from the norm proposed by "outsiders."

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