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Private Firm Prompts Suit In Baltimore

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Seeking to end Baltimore's experiment in school privatization, the teachers' union there is challenging the legality of the city's arrangement with the for-profit firm that now manages nearly a dozen of its public schools.

The lawsuit filed by the Baltimore Teachers' Union this month does not mention the Minneapolis-based firm, Education Alternatives Inc., by name. But the suit argues that the delegation of school management to private enterprises violates the city charter and has been done in a way that denies local citizens their right to decide how district schools should be run.

The union also charges that the Baltimore agreement has diverted dollars from other district schools to the privately managed schools.

Education Alternatives, which also oversees instructional services at a public school in Dade County, Fla., seeks to run public schools more efficiently with about the same amount of money that a district normally spends per student.

It has been a pioneer among the small but growing number of companies pursuing contracts to run public school districts or individual schools. Just last week, the District of Columbia superintendent said E.A.I. or a similar firm might be invited to manage some schools in Washington.

Unrest Intensifies

E.A.I. last year began a five-year contract to run eight elementary schools and one middle school in the Baltimore system.

The firm has worked to streamline school operations and has put in place its "Tesseract'' instructional program. In fall 1992, teachers boycotted the firm's training sessions and staged protests against it. (See Education Week, Sept. 16, 1992.)

The unrest intensified this fall as two more district schools prepared to join the experiment on a less sweeping basis than that of the first nine schools.

A city panel last week approved new contracts under which E.A.I. will provide financial-management, maintenance, and other nonteaching services for the two additional schools--a high school and an elementary school.

Site-based-management groups in the two schools asked for E.A.I.'s services, district officials said.

The union lawsuit, filed in the Circuit Court for Baltimore City, also challenges the district's delegation of authority to such site-based groups of school employees, which manage 24 schools under Baltimore's "enterprise school'' program.

"The city is not doing any checks and balances of private companies,'' Linda Prudente, a spokeswoman for the union, said last week. "And we see the potential for abuses and violations.''

In a statement, Superintendent Walter G. Amprey called the suit "a groundless union ploy to throw cold water on the privatization efforts.''

Most of E.A.I.'s key supporters, including Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, Mr. Amprey, and the school board, were named in the suit.

The Mayor's office declined to comment on the matter last week.

Inequitable Funding?

The union also charges in the suit that the city has compromised its pledge to educate all students equitably by directing more money to the privately run schools than to the other 178 public schools in Baltimore.

Education Alternatives receives about $5,900 per student--the district average--to operate its schools, according to Donna Franks, a spokesman for the superintendent.

In addition to the points raised in the suit, union leaders have said that Mayor Schmoke and other city and school leaders led the union to believe that an independent evaluation of E.A.I.'s efforts in the first nine schools would be undertaken before the firm's involvement was expanded.

Instead, Ms. Prudente maintained, the district quietly helped the firm persuade the two new schools to come on board.

Ms. Franks said last week that the district plans to complete an independent review later in the school year. School officials were not able to conduct one earlier because major components of E.A.I.'s instructional program, including computer labs, were not in place until late last spring, she said.

The district is expected, however, to release an internal evaluation of the first nine E.A.I.-run schools in the next few weeks.

Ms. Franks said the district does not consider the decision bringing the firm into two more schools to be an expansion of the Tesseract program, since the new agreement does not involve instruction.

Some teachers have criticized the instructional program at the E.A.I.-run schools, saying the firm has a "one size fits all'' approach.

The company's Tesseract philosophy--a term drawn from the classic children's book A Wrinkle in Time--stresses individual attention and parental involvement. It asks students to derive much of their learning from computers, books, and real-life experiences.

But Ms. Prudente said the program has failed to engage many of the students in the E.A.I. schools. She cited continued discipline problems at the middle school operated by Education Alternatives as evidence of the firm's failure.

"It's been a year'' since the firm came into the district, she added. "The rockiness should be disappearing.''

'Suing Its Own Members'

David Bennett, the president of E.A.I., described the union's suit as "ironic.'' Teachers and others in the two new E.A.I.-managed schools "voted unanimously'' to hire the firm, he said.

"The union is basically suing its own membership,'' he said.

Mr. Bennett said he believes the suit is a result of ill will caused by the transfer of some paraprofessionals represented by the union out of the E.A.I.-run schools.

Among other issues, Ms. Prudente said, "the firm has not been willing to listen to the input of people on the front line--the teachers.''

"The teachers in our schools, for the most part,'' Mr. Bennett countered, "are very pleased with what's going on in the schools.''

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