As private schools build, public foundation shakes

June 11, 1996|By MICHAEL OLESKER

If I have a child remaining in a public school system, and I see Friday's front page story about the construction boom in the private and parochial schools around Baltimore, then I ask myself a disturbing question this morning: Am I delivering to my kid a future of second-class citizenship?

The McDonoghs and Boys' Latins are spending money with both hands these days, and why not? The Bryn Mawrs and the St. Paul's schools have seen the future, and it looks bright with desperate public school refugees banging on their doors with checkbooks in hand. The Loyolas and the Garrison Forests and other private and parochial schools are raising millions for libraries and computer centers and science laboratories and such.

In the public schools, they roll the dice with the future. In Dundalk, we have Robert Ehrlich and Louis DePazzo rousing crowds of people about hordes of poor (translate: black) families being bankrolled by the government and pushed toward homes in suburban neighborhoods. The two politicians overstate the case wildly, but put that aside for a moment. You think this doesn't translate to fear of changing Baltimore County schools, where the system's already so nervous it suspends an honor student for the crime of carrying protective pepper spray?

In Howard and Harford and Carroll counties, they worry about overcrowded classrooms from large emigrations of people leaving the city and parts of Baltimore County, and wonder if their own counties have the finances to keep pace without raising taxes.

In the city of Baltimore -- hey, is this possible? Six months after public school officials threw out one failed privatization experiment, they're preparing another such venture, in which as many as 40 schools may eventually get new managers -- the schools continue their dizzying scramble for ways to stop the systemic bleeding, which includes disastrous test scores and truancy and dropouts, and the unceasing fear for children's safety.

In the face of all this, the private and parochial schools build and build. Not for expanding their numbers of students, some officials delicately explain -- though, by their own figures, they increased their enrollments 45 percent from 1990 to 1994. But these institutions don't wish to seem as if they're now cashing in on public school parents' anxieties. So this construction boom is mainly to "update" their schools, to ready them for the 21st century.

In any case, it's a seller's market. If worried parents perceive trouble in the public schools, they look elsewhere and reluctantly dig deeper into their pockets. The Baltimore area's lucky. The private schools are generally excellent, and the parochial schools are, too. The problem to parents is cost; the problem, to communities, is a more sharply defined class system, in which kids from different backgrounds never get to meet each other for the first 18 years of their lives.

Parents used to assume their tax dollars included an education for their children that prepared them for college, and for finding the good life thereafter. For those finding it necessary to bolt the public system and finance years of private schools, that's an assumption that no longer exists. But they still have to pay the same taxes.

The problem is also our increasing division into haves and have-nots. Those with extra money make their escape; those who struggle send their kids to public schools, and worry that their kids are missing the jump-start that the private school kids are getting.

The American ideal of the melting pot, which was supposed to begin in the public schools and give children a working model of the overall community, and also give everybody the same fair start, thus heaves another sigh.

Some of this specifically breaks down by race. The Maryland Association of Independent Schools reports that about 8.5 percent of the state's private school students are black. In the city of Baltimore's public schools, black enrollment is 84 percent. In Baltimore County, 24.9 percent of the students are black. A decade ago, that figure was 14 percent.

Does that mean black kids bring trouble? Some white parents suspect it, and some politicians exploit those suspicions in the service of their careers. (Although, how do you explain that to Howard County parents? There, black enrollment in public schools has been steady at about 15 percent for the past decade -- and black students in Howard County score higher than white students from Baltimore.)

But, because we know our history, the boom in private and parochial school construction inevitably makes us wonder: Does it signal an increasing brain drain from the public schools? Will it add to our late-century separations by race and by class? Is the pounding of every nail in private school construction the simultaneous pounding of a nail into the heart of our belief in the future of public schools?

Pub Date: 6/11/96

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