City school initiative considered Amprey task force eyes contracts for school management

New privatization venture

Teachers are wary of another experiment

June 10, 1996|By Jean Thompson | Jean Thompson,SUN STAFF

Only six months after Baltimore halted a controversial school privatization venture, state and city officials are preparing to award control of up to 10 schools each year to private firms.

Eventually, more than 40 public schools may get new managers -- as well as changes in curriculums, programs and staff. Officials say they want to start with five to 10 schools, beginning in September 1997.

They envision city schools run by groups as diverse as universities, parent associations, private schools and museums -- mostly nonprofit groups.

It is the latest in a host of overhaul plans proposed for the city's beleaguered public education system. The focus of all the recent proposals is to recast school management. This latest plan returns to the concept that the system can best be fixed one school at a time.

Teachers warn that the administration is failing to allow experiments to run their course before it races on to the next one.

Many in local education circles, meanwhile, are mobilizing for this newest venture, billed as the way to reinvigorate low-achieving city schools.

A task force made up of educators and community leaders is drafting policies to govern school-management contracts, School Superintendent Walter G. Amprey said last week.

With funding provided by the Abell Foundation, the school system is preparing to hire a director to coordinate the project and oversee the bidding.

A community action group has stepped forward to recruit and train individuals, parent groups and other parties who want to run a school.

They all seem to be flying ahead, unsure of what is on the horizon. In fact, no one knows whether this proposed revolution in school-level management will take place.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening has asked Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke to decide by July 28 whether to give the state a greater say in overall control of city schools. If a Glendening-Schmoke partnership takes place it would lead to new administrators for the city school system who might not follow through on the current school management proposal.

But the work goes on.

The catalyst for this latest reform plan is a 12-year-old federal court case requiring improvements to special education in Baltimore schools.

The city, the state and special education advocates agreed last spring to let universities and alternative schools run a few city schools. They wanted to see whether outside experts could help schools meet special education standards.

U.S. District Judge Marvin J. Garbis approved the plan in April 1995. In the time since, school officials identified 42 schools that had trouble serving special education students. Now state and city officials may open all of these -- and potentially other schools -- to outside management.

"If we are doing a lot of this work, we don't want to restrict it to only [special education]," said Richard J. Steinke, assistant state superintendent for special education. He is a member of Amprey's task force. The operating theory is: Fix the basic school, and special education will fall in place.

"We have to be cautious also of overreaching," he added. "We need credible groups and people who can demonstrate proper vision for the children and the communities -- and they need to be able to deliver."

Amprey's task force will propose guidelines on which groups can base their bids.

For now, there are only questions, not answers. Among them: What role will parents play? How will the experiments be evaluated? How will they be funded? At what point should a foundering project be abandoned? Which school services will be run by the school or by the central office?

"All of these issues have to dovetail," Amprey said last week. "A lot of this is not my design or direction, but my challenge will be to make it work."

The task force is researching school management experiments across the country, said Kalman R. Hettleman, special assistant to Amprey and task force chairman.

In Boston, for example, six schools are run by the city teachers union. In New York, 16 "New Visions" schools have opened, including a new school with a health-care theme run by hospital and health unions and a school run by six of the city's museums.

Hettleman's task force is considering whether to give preference to nonprofit groups in Baltimore. Some of its members want to avoid a repeat of the short-lived deal with for-profit Education Alternatives Inc., which ran nine city schools for three years. The company was accused of cutting costs to preserve its profits, substituting low-paid interns for union-scale teacher aides and angering the Baltimore Teachers Union. In November, the city school board canceled the contract.

The teachers union, invited to participate on the task force, is not enamored of the current version of the plan to contract out schools.

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