School choice is not unlike playing lottery


Squeezed: Though 30,000 city pupils are eligible for transfer to higher-performing schools this fall using Title I-funded transportation, the city can accommodate only 194 of them in 11 schools.

July 10, 2002|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

PRESIDENT BUSH is a strong advocate of school choice, but this doesn't appear to be what he has in mind.

Under provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act, the president's landmark education bill, 30,000 kids in 83 Baltimore Title I schools are eligible for transfer to "higher performing" schools this fall, with Title I paying for transportation.

After crunching the numbers, city school officials have found room for 194 kids in 11 schools. (They have 20 days to apply in what the system calls the Parent Choice Transfer Program.) By my math, that gives each child a 1-in-154.6 chance of gaining admission to any of the 11 schools, not to mention his or her school of choice.

The kids are also eligible for in-school tutoring from the likes of Sylvan Learning Systems and after-school programs, all because their schools failed them two years in a row. School officials said yesterday that they're still working out details of the supplementary program, also required by the new federal legislation.

To be fair, the system has had to deal with state and federal education departments, which are promulgating rules and regulations even as local systems and schools try to comply. To be fair also, the Baltimore system is weeks ahead of last year, when a smaller transfer program - it provided no funds for transportation - didn't get off the ground until school had opened. (Twenty-two kids transferred.)

And to be fair a third time, the system's 2002 test results show continuing improvement in reading, language and mathematics, a fact that CEO Carmen Russo trumpets in her letter to the 30,000 parents and guardians.

But to be honest, this isn't school choice any more than the Maryland Lottery gives players a choice of winnings. Russo explains to parents that "only a few student seats are available because the city school system has established a class-size model to ensure the best possible instructional program."

That will be of little solace to parents who really want to get their kids out. And few of the city's top schools are on the list of 11 receivers. That list has some curious entries. Leith Walk Elementary, for example, has a great principal, but it's one of the largest elementary schools in Maryland, one that hardly needs more children.

And all of this in a system that's closing half-empty schools, a system that's lost nearly half its enrollment in 30 years.

There is a solution that would render genuine choice. The $10 million in additional Title I money the city would get under No Child Left Behind could be used to transfer kids to higher performing schools in neighboring districts. Since many of the failed 83 are on the fringes of the city, wouldn't it make sense to move students to better schools in Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties, or even to Howard? Transportation costs would be small, and I'm sure parents and educators in places like Towson, Pikesville and Columbia would welcome the newcomers - and the chance to promote regionalism.

Call it progress of slow, but steady variety

"It's happening!" shouts Safe & Sound, the campaign to "make Baltimore a great place for children and families."

In announcing a new phase of the campaign five years after its launch in 1997, organizers provided evidence that conditions are improving for Baltimore kids.

I was particularly interested in one statistic. Between 1997 and 2001, said Safe & Sound, "the number of third-graders who can read is up almost 50 percent."

Where did Safe & Sound get this figure? I wanted to know. I called, and the organization quickly faxed over the "proof." In 1997, 11.8 percent of Baltimore third-graders scored satisfactory or above on MSPAP. Four years later, 17.5 percent did so. That's a percentage increase of 48.3, but still nothing to write home about.

Money an obvious omission in ad for Towson U. leader

That gang that can't shoot straight, the University System of Maryland, has purchased ads in major professional publications for a new president of Towson University.

The ideal candidate should "articulate a compelling vision of academic excellence, effectively fundraise" and "develop a strong sense of community," says the ad.

There's a lot of blah-blah about Towson but not a word about salary, housing or other perks, including the $1.8 million Guilford mansion occupied briefly by Mark L. Perkins and his family before he resigned under pressure in the spring. It sits vacant.

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