At the Otis Rolley forum at Huber Memorial Church in Govans last Wednesday, with about 45 people attending, there’s one topic up for discussion: education. And Otis Rolley, the youngest contender in the mayor’s race, seems to understand that he’s playing with fire. To ease into what promises to be a passionate conversation, the evening begins with an innocuous, looped video reel of the candidate against a calming blue backdrop explaining the basics of his education platform.
As the interview plays, we meet the candidate himself, in shirt, tie, and pleated pants. He shakes hands. Soon the video stops and Rolley begins to offer what he calls his four-point education plan:
- Mayoral control of Baltimore City schools
- Vouchers for students in the five worst performing middle schools
- Fifty new or renovated schools in ten years through public/private partnerships
- Improvements to the Maryland charter school laws
There isn’t much new here, and certainly nothing innovative. But there is a word that Rolley expects the audience will think is “dirty.” The word is “vouchers.”
Notably, the information packet on each seat whitewashes it with the term “opportunity scholarships.” As mayor, Rolley would set aside $25 million from the city school budget of over $1 billion to fund $10,000 scholarships (vouchers) toward tuition and other costs at private and parochial schools for students in Baltimore’s worst performing middle schools.
While “vouchers” may be a dirty word in some circles, it is a magic word for tapping into the fundraising potential of education reformers like Whitney Tilson, a self-described hedge-fund manager by day and education reformer by night. Tilson made a bundle ahead of the housing bubble by shorting real estate, according to CNBC’s Fast Money. Tilson, who earned a B.A. and M.B.A. from Harvard, attributes his interest in education reform to a personal connection to Teach for America founder and CEO Wendy Kopp, who befriended Wilson’s brother while in college at Princeton. Tilson is on the board of KIPP NYC, a charter school in a chain founded by Teach for America alumni. Otis Rolley was on the board of KIPP in Baltimore. Hence the connection. Whitney Tilson lives in Manhattan with his wife and three daughters. He is not a citizen of Baltimore. But since Rolley announced his education platform, Tilson has been urging his readers to “join” him in supporting Otis Rolley to the tune of up to $4,000, the maximum contribution.
Rolley, clearly, isn’t interested in turning either his voucher proposal or his education program into a subject of debate. With our failing public schools valiantly continuing to fail, Rolley is more interested in winning over those parents who are desperate for alternatives. His answers to the questions audience members submitted reflect that. Here are a few extracts from the Q & A.
Question one: As mayor, will you ensure that every public school offers recess?
“I will commit as mayor to push that agenda with my superintendent and school board,” says Rolley, who was surprised to learn that not every public school offers recess.
Question two: How is your education platform different from the current mayor’s?
“I have one,” says Rolley. He then offers a few other points of contrast, painting the incumbent as the candidate who wants to “stick with what works.”
Question three: How will you continue Dr. Alonso’s success?
Rolley reiterates the importance of mayoral control of the school system, accountability, and having a staff of people who are “committed, qualified, and courageous.”
Question four: Please explain public-private partnerships.
Rolley attempts to explain. He says something about the reciprocal benefit to corporations of investing in school buildings. The idea is that good schools will generate employees for the private entities that help finance them. He uses the word “pipeline” to describe the way a working school system will prepare graduates to join the workforce. (There is a case to be made that better learning environments make for better educational outcomes. But that’s not the case Rolley makes.)
Question five: Will you use the money generated from slots for schools?
“Yes,” Rolley says.
Question six: What three things would you like to see change in the life of city students?
- A mayor who cares.
- A commitment across the board to success.
- A belief that every student is worthy of greatness.
Rolley asks and answers many other questions. There are a few from BUILD (Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development). There is a compelling suggestion from a man in the back about how Baltimore might build relationships with other jurisdictions in Maryland that are also underfunded because of their meager tax base.
In answer to another point Rolley says he is not for an elected school board, because elected officials might use their seats as stepping stones to higher office. He insists that accountability should be with the mayor – who would presumably be held accountable at the polls every four years. He says we need to make the charter school law more amenable to outside operators who have been deterred by the current law.
There are some other Tweetables:
“I want them [meaning students] to be in buildings that say they are worthwhile.”
“We need air conditioners. Amen.”
“We are more broken than we are broke.”
“There are 249 neighborhoods, not just Downtown.”
There are mentions of the three three “A”s, to describe the building blocks of a great education that are just as important as the three “R”s:
And the three “C”s, to describe the people he’d be sure to have around him:
There is a great question about how you convince the two-thirds of Baltimore residents who don’t think schools are a priority that they are. Otis Rolley doesn’t think that will be too hard, for a number of reasons. But after a point I stop taking notes. That point comes a few minutes after Rolley says,
“Much of what I’m recommending is an uphill battle.”
Judging from this meeting, getting Rolley to speak frankly about public education is going to be an uphill battle. Rolley has mastered the handshake, and he’s learned how to buzz-up his language with phrases like “agenda,” “accountability,” and “pipeline.” He’s even got a punny tagline for a man named Otis: “Elevate Baltimore.”
But as a pro-neighborhood school mom in a pro-charter school world, I want a hearing. And I’m hopeful I can get it from a young politician who – as the author of Baltimore City’s master plan – is probably better equipped than anyone to see the crucial role that a great zoned public school can play in building a neighborhood.
So why is he promoting an education platform that seems to ignore the specific needs of those 248 other neighborhoods he promises to elevate? I submit a similar question on a 2-by-3 inch notecard and toward the end he gets to it:
Given that the city-wide model of charter school enrollment undermines the potential for neighborhood schools to strengthen the surrounding community, why are you – a city planner and a parent of a student in a traditional public school – pushing to promote charter schools (which are proliferating at a rapid clip as it is)?
Rolley disagrees with the premise that charter schools are undermining neighborhood public schools. He gives the education reformers’ line on choice. He believes we should have strong charter schools and strong neighborhood schools – a line I’ve heard from people who represent Alonso’s BCPSS. And like those representatives, Otis Rolley seems to be blind to the fact that those two goals are irreconcilable.
But before I can speak, an African American woman stands up. She explains that Govans and Guilford, two neighborhood public schools nearby, are underenrolled and losing money because of the recent founding of a number of charter schools in the area. She explains that when a school loses a student, it loses funds, because the funds go with that child. If a school is underenrolled, it can’t operate the way it should. She explains that a two-tiered system is forming, and that students left behind in neighborhood schools are worse off as a result of the choice presented by charter schools.
Her point isn’t that charter schools are the “bogie man,” as Rolley keeps insisting they aren’t. Her point is that Rolley can’t claim that charters are having no effect on the viability of neighborhood schools. It’s an uncomfortable fact that politicians from Rolley to Obama tend to shy away from: charters tap students and sap resources from neighborhood schools that have roots in living, breathing communities.
The woman says there needs to be a cap on the number of charter schools that can be founded in Baltimore City. Rolley responds that he doesn’t believe there needs to be a cap. Not that it matters. There isn’t a cap. What’s most interesting about this exchange is that the woman who rose to speak sends her child to a charter school. Rolley says, see, you are benefitting from choice. But she isn’t buying it.
The free-marketeers who are pushing for choice will say that consumers get what consumers want. Bad schools go under, and people flock to good schools. That market-based outlook ignores the basic foundation of public education: It’s free. It takes all comers. No lottery. No staying up late to be first in line. No hedging bets against real estate bubbles. There is no front of the line and no back of the bus. American public education is the great equalizer. Or that’s how it ought to be.
After two hours of platitudes and baseless beliefs about what works, I get the sense that Rolley’s grasp on the issues is more tenuous than mine. I also don’t know where he stands. Is he a free-marketeer who feels that the market should determine which neighborhoods wind up keeping zoned public schools and which don’t? Or does he believe that zoned schools are worth lifting up in a city that is ultimately a mosaic of 249 neighborhoods?
Right now, he seems to think we can elevate Baltimore by mimicking failed policies from other U.S. cities. That’s a shame. Here’s a candidate who has the potential to turn Baltimore into an example that other cities can follow. If he gets his head on straight, he can change the tune on education reform in this country. But all we’re getting is so much elevator music.