In Brief

February 01, 1994 15 min read

Baltimore Union Seeks To End For-Profit Schools

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

The lawsuit, filed by the Baltimore Teachers’ Union in December, does not mention the Minneapolis-based firm 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.

EAI, 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. [See “Bullish On Schools,’' April 1993.]

Last year, the firm began working under a five-year contract to run eight elementary schools and one middle school in Baltimore. It has tried to streamline school operations and has put in place its “Tesseract’’ instructional program, which stresses individual attention and parental involvement. Through the program, students derive much of their learning from computers, books, and real-life experiences.

In the fall of 1992, some Baltimore teachers staged protests against the firm and boycotted its training sessions. The unrest intensified this past fall as two more district schools prepared to join the privatization experiment on a less sweeping basis than that of the first nine. District officials say site-based-management groups in the two schools asked for EAI’s services.

The union lawsuit, filed in the Circuit Court for Baltimore City, also challenges the district’s delegation of authority to such sitebased groups of school employees. “The city is not doing any checks and balances of private companies,’' says Linda Prudente, a spokeswoman for the union. “And we see the potential for abuses and violations.’'

Prudente asserts that the Tesseract program has failed to engage many of the students in the EAI schools, citing continued discipline problems at the firm’s middle school as evidence. “It’s been a year,’' she says. “The rockiness should be disappearing.’'

Superintendent Walter Amprey calls the suit “a groundless union ploy to throw cold water on the privatization efforts.’'

And EAI President David Bennett describes it as “ironic.’' Teachers and others in the two new EAI-managed schools “voted unanimously’’ to hire the firm, Bennett explains. “The union is basically suing its own membership.’' Bennett says the suit is really a result of ill will caused by the transfer of some paraprofessionals represented by the union out of the EAI-run schools.

Annenberg Pledges

$500 Million For School Reform At a White House ceremony in December, 85-year-old philanthropist Walter Annenberg pledged $500 million of his vast publishing fortune to further education reform. It was the largest private gift ever to American public schools.

Flanked by President Clinton and Secretary of Education Richard Riley, Annenberg said concern over rising violence among America’s young people had prompted the gift. “We have got to reverse what is going on in this country,’' he said. “We must ask ourselves whether improving education will halt the violence.’'

Annenberg, founder of TV Guide and a former U.S. Ambassador to Britain, described his pledge as a “challenge to the nation’’ and called on government leaders, corporations, foundations, and individuals to join him in supporting the public schools. He said his family foundation will award the first $100 million of his pledge this year to two groups:

  • Fifty million dollars will endow the Annenberg National Institute for School Reform, located at Brown University. The institute, directed by Brown professor Theodore Sizer, founder of the Coalition of Essential Schools, hopes to unite the activities of the broad range of groups working to improve public schools across the nation.
  • Fifty million dollars will go to the Alexandria, Va.-based New American Schools Development Corp., a private, nonprofit organization launched in 1991 by business leaders at the behest of President Bush to create innovative schools. Annenberg, who serves on the NASDC board, had previously given the organization $10 million. His new gift, which nearly doubles the amount of money NASDC has raised since its inception, will be used to support the work of its nine schooldesign teams.

In addition, the Annenberg Foundation plans in 1995 to give $15 million to the Education Commission of the States to disseminate the work of NASDC’s design teams and other school reform models and $5 million to the Annenberg Institute to launch a national network that would link public schools electronically, enabling them to get rapid access to information.

Vartan Gregorian, president of Brown University, will work with the institute’s board of overseers to formulate a proposal for how to distribute the remaining $380 million of the pledge. Gregorian, a longtime friend and adviser to Annenberg, said he hopes to submit a plan to the foundation by May or June.

At a briefing following Annenberg’s announcement, both Sizer and David Kearns, NASDC’s chairman and chief executive officer, declined to comment specifically on how the remaining funds might be distributed. A Brown University press release, however, provides some idea.

According to the release, the institute will work with other national school reform groups to identify and support successful public elementary and secondary schools. At least 30 percent of those schools must be located in the nation’s nine largest school districts: New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, Philadelphia, Detroit, Dallas, and Florida’s Dade and Broward counties. The schools, which will be designated “National Schools,’' will receive funds to support their work and staff development.

As a second component of the initiative, outstanding teachers, primarily from the National Schools, will be named to a new “National School-Reform Faculty.’' This corps of experienced educators will continue teaching but will also receive release time to help other schools reform. Finally, other grants could go to match funding of state reform efforts, to support projects focusing on urban schooling and low-income families, and to encourage school-university collaborations.

“While Mr. Annenberg’s gift is enormous for an individual, it is very small against the need,’' Sizer said. “Mr. Annenberg’s intention in calling it a challenge is very creative as leverage for further philanthropic and public monies. Because of the scale of the problem, the need to make alliances is paramount.’'

Schools’ Use Of Computers Found Lacking

Although U.S. schools made early use of computers and continue to invest heavily in educational technology, the existing stock of machines is now largely outmoded, and the use of computers as instructional tools “has not advanced very far across the curriculum,’' according to a new international assessment of precollegiate computer use.

While 99 percent of elementary and secondary schools in the United States report having access to computers, the report concludes that “many of the 47 million students in American schools remain largely unaffected by the existing infrastructure.’' Moreover, it says, “many teachers and students do not touch a computer more than once or twice a year, so the benefit of having access to them is inevitably minimal.’'

Still, U.S. schools have a higher overall density of computers--3.5 million machines, one for every 13 students--than the other four industrialized countries studied and have achieved virtually race- and gender-neutral access to computers.

The report, Computers in American Schools 1992: An Overview, compares computer availability and applications in the United States, Austria, Germany, Japan, and the Netherlands. The study was coordinated by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement.

While it points out some critical shortcomings in the effective use of technology by U.S. schools, the report also acknowledges that the task of keeping up with technological advances is daunting. “The schools have never had such a demanding challenge before,’' the report says. “Never have they had to design curricula and train teachers for something that becomes obsolete so quickly.’'

Condom Program Must Give Parents ‘Opt Out’ Option

In February 1991, when thenNew York City schools chancellor Joseph Fernandez introduced a program that made free condoms available to the city’s public high school students, many parents cried foul.

Some, along with a member of the board of education, Michael Petrides, brought suit against the district, alleging that the condomdistribution plan violated parental rights to determine how their children should be raised.

In December, a New York state appellate court--the second highest court in the state--agreed with them. In what many experts say is the first ruling of its kind, the court held that passing out condoms at school is a health service rather than an educational service and, as such, must offer an “opt out’’ mechanism to parents. Writing for the majority, Justice Vincent Pizzuto said, “Supplying condoms to students upon request has absolutely nothing to do with education but rather is a health service occurring after the educational phase has ceased.’'

The appellate panel, however, was not unanimous in its ruling. A dissenting justice, Geraldine Eiber, noted that many students do not have parents “to provide guidance and discipline.’'

“Since the consequence of contracting the AIDS virus is death,’' Eiber wrote, “providing practical protection against the spread of the virus that causes it to a highrisk population...outweighs the minimal intrusion into the parent/child relationship of the more protected, fortunate population of New York City.’'

Raymond Cortines, the new chancellor of the city schools, is revising the program to meet the demands of the court. Under the rewritten policy, a letter from Cortines would be sent to all parents of high school students, explaining the condom program. Attached to the letter would be a form that parents could complete if they do not want condoms to be available to their children. The consent forms would be kept on file by student ID number, to ensure students’ privacy.

Innovative District To Reward Effective Schools

After years of debate in Rochester, N.Y., over how to incorporate the concept of accountability in teachers’ contracts, union and school officials there reached an unprecedented agreement in December that will set aside more classroom resources for high-achieving schools.

Although the city has adopted several widely publicized school reform initiatives, the issue of accountability has been a stumbling block since the first attempts to refine a landmark 1987 agreement that restructured the district’s teaching force. But the four-year, $2.5 million Rochester pact, which includes an annual 3.5 percent pay raise for teachers and a pledge to crack down on school violence, appears to have broken new ground.

“The most tangible difference between this [contract] and others in the country is the emphasis on group accountability and individual accountability,’' says Mutiu Fagbayi of the National Center on Education and the Economy, a policy group that has worked closely with the district. “It’s in the forefront.’'

When the negotiations for a new contract began early last year, there was a push by some school officials and the larger community to adopt a merit-pay system for teachers. But union and district leaders fought for an alternative, citing evidence that merit-pay systems had not been successful in other districts. Both wanted a system that did not rely on standardized tests to measure success and did not pit schools and teachers against each other.

“This contract has a more sensible definition of accountability,’' says Adam Urbanski, president of the Rochester teachers’ union.

Observers describe the schoolwide incentives as the centerpiece of the new accountability pact. Under the agreement, a $1 million classroom-resource fund will be carved out of the general school budget for rewarding teachers and schools that meet the district’s new “principles for achieving schools.’' Such schools provide knowledge-based teaching that is responsive to students’ needs and empower children to take greater responsibility for their learning. Teachers on the schools’ site-based-decisionmaking teams would distribute the money to their colleagues for new classroom supplies or professional-development activities.

Fagbayi believes the seed money not only will make teachers and schools more accountable for student achievement but also will multiply teachers’ opportunities to collaborate. “This really engenders peer mentoring,’' he says.

While teachers already undergo rigorous evaluations under the career ladder created several years ago, the new pact stipulates that teachers take part in even more comprehensive evaluations. In addition to their annual portfolio reviews and self-assessments, teachers every three years will be required “to take their practice public,’' Urbanski explains, undergoing reviews by students and parents and observations by their colleagues. If a teacher is not found to be meeting professional standards, he adds, no pay raise will be granted.

AFT Urges A Halt To ‘Full Inclusion’

The American Federation of Teachers has called for a moratorium on the “full inclusion’’ movement, prompting an outcry among special educators and disability-rights advocates who support educating disabled students in regular classrooms.

“We have great problems with the movement that says, ‘Start by putting all the kids in the [regular] classrooms,’ '' Albert Shanker, president of the AFT, said at a Washington news conference. Citing reports from his members that students with disabilities were monopolizing an inordinate amount of time and resources and, in some cases, creating violent classroom environments, Shanker urged that inclusion initiatives be halted until policies are developed to deal with such problems.

“This reaction did not come from the leadership [of the AFT],’' said Marcia Reback, head of the union’s special education task force and president of the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers. “Teachers...turned to AFT and asked AFT to do something about what was happening in their schools.’' Union officials also noted that some parents and advocates have expressed concern that the services disabled children once enjoyed in separate educational settings do not always follow them when they move into regular classrooms.

Educators who support the inclusion concept agreed that it has not been successful in all cases but argued against the moratorium idea. Instead, they argued, educators and administrators should support the programs that work and reform the ones that do not. “We appreciate their concerns, but we don’t think a moratorium is in order,’' said Martha Fields, executive director of the National Association of State Directors of Special Education. “There are instances where there are problems, but I also think that there are instances where inclusive schooling is working very well and to the benefit of the whole school.’'

While many school districts once rejected inclusion because they thought it too costly, Shanker and other critics now say some districts have rushed to bring all students into regular classrooms, regardless of their ability, in an effort to save money. “It’s a budget-cutting device,’' Shanker said, “in many cases using the fig leaf of altruism.’'

Busing Initiative Sparks Backlash

Voters in Wausau, Wis., have tossed out five school board members for implementing a busing program designed to more evenly distribute poor and SoutheastAsian students around the district. The five were trounced in a December recall election by a slate of challengers opposed to the busing plan.

Even so, efforts to dismantle the plan, which was implemented last fall, could face legal obstacles. Ya Yang, the only supporter of the busing program remaining on the board, said he may seek an injunction to prevent the district from returning to neighborhood schooling. And a group of local parents as well as the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin has also threatened to sue if the reconstituted board takes actions that make the district’s schools more segregated. “A hasty reversion to a segregated plan would cause upheaval in the community and would be met with immediate legal ramifications,’' a lawyer for the parents warned.

The busing program in the 8,800-student district, which has few African-American or Hispanic students, was designed to promote the integration of children from poor or SoutheastAsian families. Southeast-Asian children, mostly from Hmong refugee families resettled by church groups, account for 16 percent of the district’s overall enrollment and nearly a quarter of its entering-kindergarten students. Because of housing patterns, the students were heavily concentrated in a few schools, which also tended to enroll disproportionate numbers of low-income white children, many with special needs.

Responding to teachers and principals in those schools, who complained of being overwhelmed, the Wausau board last year devised a plan to restructure six elementary schools in order to reduce racial disparities. When the plan was implemented last fall, 600 children were bused up to 2.2 miles away from their neighborhood schools. No school was left with a minority enrollment of more than 32 percent.

Although most teachers were supportive, parents rebelled and collected 10,000 signatures calling for recall elections. The campaign leading up to the election was a heated one focused almost solely on the busing issue. Supporters of the busing plan accused the recall slate of racism, while the challengers depicted the incumbents as social engineers out of touch with their constituents.

Scott Williams, a recall-slate leader who is the new board president, has pledged to try to mend the deep divisions created by the busing controversy in the city of 36,000. Said Williams, “We are going to attempt to find some middle ground if we can.’'

A version of this article appeared in the February 01, 1994 edition of Teacher as In Brief