When I wrote in May about why Hampden is ripe for a neighborhood school renaissance, I included in my praise for this place the bike shop, the baby shop, the chocolate-and-shoes shop. But I neglected to mention the other new hot spot on The Avenue – the campaign headquarters of mayoral contender Otis Rolley.
I want to like Otis Rolley. He seems like a really good guy. Watch his TEDx talk on new urban renewal and you’ll want to let him kiss your baby. But Rolley’s education plan, which started making waves last Sunday, has caused a few Baltimore parents to scratch their heads.
Here’s a quick rundown: “The Rolley Plan to Improve Baltimore’s Education System for the Future of Our Children and Our City” roots itself in the failing state of our schools. In 2010-11, six out of 10 schools didn’t make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) – the measure set forth in No Child Left Behind that demands 100% proficiency in reading and math by 2014.
“This year,” the bad news continues, “the results are expected to be even worse. Just 39 percent of graduating seniors are prepared for college or the workforce” (emphasis added). And it’s true. While there are a few bright spots, on the whole the Baltimore City Public School System isn’t looking too hot.
But keep reading.
Rolley’s four “distinct, tangible solutions to help permanently fix Baltimore’s education system” are:
- Mayoral control of City Schools;
- Education vouchers for students in the worst performing middle schools;
- Fifty (50) new or renovated schools in 10 years through public-private partnerships; and
- State charter school law revisions to expand the options for parents.
Together, these reforms along with expedited academic reforms currently underway, will allow Baltimore schools to increase the high school graduation rate to 85 percent and ensure that at least 90 percent of graduates are prepared for college or post secondary job training by the end of this decade. (emphasis added)
I wish I had time to do a thorough point-by-point analysis of the Rolley Plan. But I’m going to focus on #1 and #2, the points that the Rolley campaign calls “radical.”
#1. Baltimore City Bests All of New York State, or to paraphrase Rolley, “New York is nice, but it’s no Baltimore.”
You have only to look at New York City to see that mayoral control isn’t doing any good. On June 14, 2011, the New York Times reported on the level of college readiness among state graduates, with numbers for Mayor Bloomberg’s empire:
In New York City, 21 percent of the students who started high school in 2006 graduated last year with high enough scores on state math and English tests to be deemed ready for higher education or well-paying careers. (emphasis added)
Twenty-one percent for a city with a school system that has been under mayoral control since June 2002. The percentage for all of New York State – 37%. That should put the figure Rolley’s plan laments – 39% – into perspective. Don’t get me wrong. It’s a lousy number. But it’s almost double that of New York City, which is number one on the list of cities that Rolley cites as exemplars of mayoral control over the school system.
#2. Vouchers Don’t Improve Academic Performance, They Breed Discrimination, and They Can’t Be Targeted
Vouchers are a 21-year-old experiment currently coming of age in Wisconsin, where the nation’s first voucher program was instituted, in Milwaukee, in 1990. We have a model to look at, and here’s what it’s showing:
a) Students in voucher versus public schools in Milwaukee do about the same academically, according to research put out a couple of years ago by the University of Arkansas. (See “Study finds results of MPS and voucher school students are similar” by Alan J. Borsuk of the Journal Sentinel, March 26, 2009.) The National School Boards Association has taken up Milwaukee vouchers as a key advocacy issue, and maintains a running archive of articles on the topic. Here’s a link. This is just to say that there is no data from the oldest voucher program in the nation to support the notion that students will be better served by private or parochial schools than they would be by traditional public schools.
b) Voucher programs discriminate, according to the ACLU. Less than a week before Rolley unfurled his education plan, Milwaukee’s voucher program came under attack by the ACLU for alleged discrimination against students with disabilities. (See “School choice program shuts out disabled, federal complaint says” by Tom Held of the Journal Sentinel, June 7, 2011, and “Milwaukee’s Voucher Program Discriminates Based On Disabilities, ACLU Says,” Joy Resmovits for Huffington Post, June 7, 2011.) I wonder if i) Rolley was aware of the ACLU’s claim and went ahead with his platform anyway, or ii) he didn’t have a chance to rethink his position. I’m hoping it’s the latter, and that he rethinks it now.
c) Introducing vouchers for a few – or “targeted” vouchers, to quote Rolley – is a slippery slope. Rolley seems to think that he will be able to limit eligibility for vouchers to students in the worst performing schools. Recent events in Wisconsin – where Republican governor Scott Walker has been in the limelight these past months for anti-union and pro-privatization schemes – would indicate that this limit may be beyond a mayor’s ability to enforce. It’s certainly not above politics, especially when funding for the program would have to be approved by the state, as Rolley admits.
Wisconsin’s Republican-controlled state legislature recently voted to expand the voucher program to a county outside Milwaukee and raise the income limits for parents who want to send their children to “choice” schools. (See “Amid protests, panel votes to expand school choice, cut aid to local governments” by Patrick Marley of the Journal Sentinel.) Who’s to say that wouldn’t happen here? How much control can a mayor assert over the budget of a city school system that is funded largely – 80% – by the state? (See this.)
I could go on. On #3 – improving or building new school buildings – the ACLU is on that tip. So is the Baltimore Education Coalition. How public-private partnerships work and what a sale-lease back deal entails – those are concepts I hope a journalist in this town will explain. On #4 – if I were in a union I would look into this piece pretty closely.
As far as #1 and #2 go, the evidence is all bad news for Rolley’s plan, and for this hopeful voter. But I really, really want to give his campaign the benefit of the doubt. After all, the New York City college-readiness numbers came out after Rolley announced his education plan. And the news from Wisconsin about claims of discrimination against the voucher program, that was less than a week old. The timing gives Rolley good reason to sit down right now and revise the plan.
Just think: a politician who can pivot in the face of evidence that demands a new line on education reform – that would be radical. It might even earn him this city mom’s vote.