The advantages, disadvantages are at a balance Study: The task force looking at the University System of Maryland is hearing all manner of testimony on the governance structure, but an overhaul of the system seems unlikely.

The Education Beat

November 25, 1998|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

CHARLES R. LARSON must be wondering what he got himself into.

The retired Navy admiral and former superintendent of the Naval Academy took on the unpaid job of chairing a task force studying the structure of the University System of Maryland.

Which meant that the admiral had to sit through hour after hour of testimony -- rebellious, praising, off the point, pleading, trenchant, childish and hostile. Someone once said that politics in higher education are so vicious because the stakes are so low.

But that too lightly dismisses the very real concerns of Towson University, which is suffering financially under the 10-year-old system, and of the flagship campus at College Park, which hasn't been able to break from the pack to reach the blessed eminence of peer universities in Chapel Hill and Charlottesville. Many at Towson and College Park want out of the system altogether.

The problem seems to be that the system's advantages and disadvantages are balanced. The former College Park president, William E. Kirwan, is on the mark when he says that the missions of the system's 13 institutions "are too diverse to be under one governance structure."

But E. A. Betty Edmonds, a member of the chancellor's advisory council at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, is also correct in observing that "power, strength and economic advantages accrue from togetherness."

In other words, Maryland public colleges and universities can hang together or hang separately.

Much of the testimony Larson has heard blames the system for problems that weren't of its making. The University System of Maryland was not responsible for the devastating recession of the early 1990s, from which it is still recovering. Nor is the system responsible for decades of miserly legislative support for public higher education.

Our prediction is the same as it was when the General Assembly established the task force: We may see some tinkering, perhaps some softening of regulations, but a system overhaul seems unlikely.

Not for lack of study.

One of the consultants to the task force, the Education Commission of the States, noted that "during the last decade, Maryland alone has produced more studies and committee reports on funding formulas, guidelines and peer groups than the entire western half of the U.S. put together."

Private school scholarships now available in Baltimore

Baltimore has what amounts to a private school voucher scheme.

You might have heard the radio commercials urging low-income parents to apply to the Children's Scholarship Fund, announced in late September by New York financier Theodore Forstmann and Wal-Mart billionaire John T. Walton.

The two men put $100 million into the program and raised $75 million privately. About $1 million is directed at Baltimore, with more in the offing.

About 500 city families are expected to receive scholarships, ranging from $600 to $1,600 yearly.

The fund's Baltimore affiliate, the Children's Educational Opportunities Foundation (CEO Baltimore), has identified more than 60 area private and parochial schools with 2,600 vacancies and an average tuition of $2,900. (Elite prep schools aren't in the running.)

Suzanna F. Duvall, president of CEO Baltimore, said the foundation requires local matching funds and must be self-supporting in four years.

Forstmann and Walton insist that theirs is a scholarship program, but if it turns out to be a trial balloon for publicly financed vouchers -- well, so be it. Predictably, conservatives are in high praise, liberals in high dudgeon.

Can't a man give away a fortune in peace?

Pub Date: 11/25/98

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