When Baltimore mayor Kurt Schmoke spoke at the Johns
Hopkins/Greater Homewood Community Conversations series March 7,
he dropped one of those little policy bombshells his
administration has become justifiably famous for. In his
continuing quest for change within the city's troubled school
system, the mayor suggested that any remedy would be considered.
Even school choice.
Declaring "it's time to give all Baltimore parents the option to pull their children out of poorly run schools and place them in schools where they believe their children will get a better education," the mayor suggested specifically targeting students attending schools the state has identified as eligible for reconstitution because of poor test scores and low attendance rates.
In many jurisdictions where school choice has been tried, parents are given a voucher worth a certain amount of money that they may use for their children's education. They are free to keep their children in the neighborhood school--or take them and their money, in the form of vouchers, elsewhere.
"I know that I am opening up a controversial and emotional debate," Mayor Schmoke said at the breakfast. It may have been a classic case of political understatement. The Sunday following his announcement the mayor was depicted in the lead editorial cartoon of the Baltimore Sun as a blindfolded knife-thrower trying to hit the target of better city schools. Letters, articles, editorials and op-ed pieces both for and against the idea followed.
Yet for all the controversy the issue stirs up, there are a growing number of municipalities--including the Milwaukee public school system and the East Harlem district in New York City--that have experimented successfully with various forms of school choice. On June 27, the School of Continuing Studies' Police Leadership Program, in cooperation with the private, nonprofit Citizens Planning and Housing Association, sponsored a public forum on school choice in response to the mayor's call to action.
"You can't separate schools as distinct and removed from the neighborhood and community issues," said Sheldon Greenberg, department chair of Interdisciplinary Programs within the School of Continuing Studies.
As instructor and a coordinator within the CPHA Neighborhood Leadership Initiative and director of the Police Executive Leadership Program, Greenberg has taken an active role in forging a working partnership between Hopkins and the outreach efforts of CPHA. He was instrumental in bringing the school choice forum to the university's Berman Auditorium at the Downtown Center, where an audience of several dozen--including members of Mayor Schmoke's special task force on school choice--listened politely and closely questioned advocates and opponents of the measure.
"Schools are an ultimate neighborhood issue and, by the same token, an important police issue as well," he said. "If you have a safe school, in which faculty and students feel safe and secure, you don't have teachers and administrators seeking to transfer. Safe, secure schools are rarely troubled schools. Good schools can be the nucleus of good neighborhoods, and, conversely, weak schools can cause people and businesses to move away."
Neither the CPHA/SCS Neighborhood Leadership Initiative nor the Police Executive Leadership Program has an official position on school choice. Both, however, advocate community and parent involvement in the schools as the surest means of improvement. "One of the reasons we sponsored this forum was to provide an opportunity to look at these issues from the perspective of neighborhood leaders, rather than from that of school administrators," Greenberg said. "As you can imagine, our neighborhood perspective is often quite different."
The forum, conducted as a panel discussion among three leading national education reformers and moderated by Baltimore television newscaster Mary Beth Marsden, touched on school vouchers, charter and magnet schools as alternatives to the conventional system of schools by neighborhood district. Each of the panelists spoke for 20 minutes with a different perspective on school choice. After more than an hour of presentations, the floor was opened to questions and discussion in which the audience frequently felt free to voice its opinion through applause, hisses and groans.
"One of the hardest things about education is there's no magic bullet," said CPHA education organizer Laura Weeldreyer, who worked closely with Green-berg in coordinating the forum. "There's never only one cure. Some schools in Baltimore have made incredible efforts and are showing results, but often there is a perception that the school system itself is not supportive, that something is standing in the way of meaningful change."
Weeldreyer pointed out that although school choice has been tried in various guises across the country, as yet "no definitive research has been done" that would indicate the relative merits of any one approach.
"Our schools can't barricade themselves within neighborhoods," Greenberg said of the Police Executive Leadership Program's co-sponsorship of the forum. "Administrators within our schools must be able and willing to interact with police, neighborhood and other leaders within the community. Forums such as this one are so important because they facilitate needed dialogue. We intend to remain actively involved with this and other community issues in the future. We can't allow any entity-- the police, the schools or others--to function in a vacuum."
"The goal of the forum was for people to walk away with a clearer understanding of what school choice entails," said Weeldreyer of the event. "If citizens band together long enough and scream loud enough, we can eventually get what we want-- including better schools. But citizen participation is the key. We were delighted to work with the School for Continuing Studies in promoting better understanding of the educational issues surrounding our children's education."
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