An open mind on vouchers City schools: Partnership should not close door on possibility of school choice program.

November 25, 1996

THE COURT SETTLEMENT that will dictate what happens next with Baltimore public schools has cooled the passion for school choice that Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke had last spring when he appointed a panel to examine the issue. That's too bad. In our view, school choice is an option worth exploring -- particularly if a voucher experiment in Cleveland, which includes parochial schools, shows good results.

Baltimore's usually liberal Democratic mayor surprised many in March when he jumped on the bandwagon for school choice. Voucher systems allowing students to use public money to attend private schools are mostly championed by conservative Republicans. But, conceding failure in improving city schools, Mr. Schmoke said if parents had a choice of where to send their children, the competition for students might force failing schools to improve.

He then appointed the task force and insisted the choice concept was not inconsistent with a city-state partnership for running the schools. But now that the partnership has received court approval, the mayor's task force has turned down the idea of school vouchers in favor of a range of other options.

The ideas endorsed by the task force -- magnet schools, charter schools and open enrollment plans -- are attractive. But if the Cleveland program succeeds, these innovations are not likely to stop the clamor for a voucher program that includes religious schools.

No voucher experiment is likely to succeed unless it includes parochial schools that have established track records and can demonstrate good results with urban students. A lawsuit challenging the Cleveland system is now working its way through the courts, after a lower court agreed that the program did not violate the Constitution's provision requiring separation between church and state.

With a new management structure and some badly needed new funding from the state, Baltimore's school system has a chance to reinvent itself. But that cannot happen unless it is willing to entertain bold ideas, even those that have long seemed anathema to the education establishment. If Cleveland can show that offering vouchers not only enables children of poor families to seek out better schools but also spurs public schools to compete effectively for highly motivated students, then Baltimore should not close the door on this idea.

Pub Date: 11/25/96

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