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In Baltimore, Fight over Privatizing Public Schools Continues

July 23, 1995

BALTIMORE (AP) _ In a small library at Harlem Park Elementary School, seven boys and a girl are gathered around a table, faces upturned as teacher Kevin Brown reads the first line of a famous poem.

``What happens to a dream deferred?″ Brown reads. ``What’s that word mean, deferred?″

With a little prompting, they work it out. Tobias Sellers, 9, then tries the next line: ``Does it dry ...″ He stumbles.

``Stand up,″ Brown says. ``Again, with expression.″

``Does it dry up, like a raisin in the sun?″ Tobias reads.

By the last line, all hands are waving. Darrell Mitchell is picked: ``Or does it explode?″

``That’s good,″ the teacher says. And he smiles.

As they wrap up a summer arts class, Brown and his pupils are at the center of what may be the nation’s nastiest school battle _ over whether a corporation can run schools better than the government.

Brown works for Education Alternatives Inc., a Minneapolis firm that runs 12 public schools in Baltimore, and will soon start running five in Hartford, Conn.

Even as the company presses for new business in Washington and elsewhere, it faces tough questions about whether it has failed at its goal of getting better results for the same money.

The 12 EAI schools in inner-city Baltimore may look better now than two years ago, critics say. There are more computers, less graffiti.

But student test scores have not improved one bit.

``In our enthusiasm, we may have created an impression that things would change faster than they would,″ the company’s spokeswoman, Chris Bauer, acknowledges.

Sounding uncannily like the teachers unions they criticize, EAI officials now say test scores should not be the only measure of a school’s success.

But even supporters are dissatisfied.

Baltimore’s mayor has said he wants the contract renegotiated to include performance measures. Much hinges on test scores to be publicized later this summer.

Tempers have always run high over EAI _ so far, the most successful firm in the growing private education services industry.

At one school board meeting in Hartford, Conn., where EAI will run five schools starting this year, hundreds of teachers protested the firm’s contract so loudly that board members asked for police protection.

The teachers’ unions, and other opponents, contend EAI is a union-buster that will drain public tax money.

It appears unlikely that EAI will get a contract in Washington in time for the fall term, but some school board members and members of Congress who oversee the city’s budget are still hopeful that one can be negotiated at a later date.

In Baltimore, EAI has received federal warnings to provide more services to disabled students, and has reported inflated test scores, the American Federation of Teachers points out.

EAI blames score mistakes on clerical errors, and says it is now in compliance with special education rules.

Its supporters argue that teachers unions care only for their own salaries, and thus are dead set against any reform needed to truly improve schools.

Educationally, EAI doesn’t do anything that different from what reform-minded schools already do, both sides agree. It seeks parental involvement. It tries to boost children’s self-esteem. It encourages interactive learning through computers.

EAI claims, though, that it can target money more efficiently toward classrooms because it avoids the bloated bureaucracies of the district’s central office.

That’s what Yolanda Sellers likes best. ``They go to museums, they look at paintings and sculpture _ abstract and all kinds of things,″ says the mother of two in Brown’s class.

But under its contract, EAI receives more public funding per pupil than Harlem Park and the other 11 schools would have received normally.

``It’s not a level playing field,″ said Donna Fowler of the AFT. ``They get more money. And yet, still, they can’t get the test scores up.″

Even some conservatives, traditional supporters of privatization and school choice, express hesitation with EAI’s record.

``Will parents have more say in curriculum? Will teachers focus more on discipline, and keeping focused on task in the classroom?″ asked Bob Morrison of the Family Research Council in Washington. ``That’s what we care about.

``Will they succeed at that? It’s still up in the air.″

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