Baltimore City schoolchildren deserve a real choice

Private school vouchers are shown to yield benefits, so why not try them in Baltimore?

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"Greetings from Maryland, home of the number one public school system in America for four years in a row!" That is how Gov. Martin O'Malley opened his speech at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., last week to a roar of applause.

He was referring to the state's ranking from Education Week magazine. If he had said, "Greetings from Maryland, where more than 60 percent of public school graduates who studied a 'college prep curriculum' and went on to community college needed remedial help in math" (which was the case as recently as the 2008-09 school year), the crowd response likely wouldn't have been so enthusiastic. Neither would a story about Baltimore City, which stubbornly remains outside of the Maryland education success story he paints.

Test results have been stagnant in the city for three years, and scores are about 25 percentage points lower than Maryland's average despite the government spending $14,711 per student, according to the most recent Census data. That works out to be the third-highest amount of the 50 largest school districts in the nation. Only New York City and Montgomery County public school systems spent more per child on that list.

In the city, about 67 percent of public school students scored what the state government defines as proficient or advanced on tests in reading, and 63 percent scored the same in math. Education observers from across the political spectrum say state tests around the country have been dumbed down to make it easier for them to achieve goals required by federal law, however. So who knows what "proficient" or "advanced" means now.

Regardless of the standards issue, city schools chief Andrés Alonso says "it takes time" for students to improve. While that is true, the right policies have to be in place for students to achieve.

As Governor O'Malley told Leaders magazine recently, "Too often, we say that educational reform is too hard; the best you can do as a political leader is put more dollars into school construction — something you can cut ribbons on — but the longer lasting impact comes from the commitment to the tougher changes that might not come to fruition in your own term of office."

He's right. That is why the city needs to adopt policies that give students and their parents more choice about where children attend school.

The latest evidence for choice comes from Matthew M. Chingos of the Brookings Institution and Paul E. Peterson of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. (Note: Neither place is known for championing right-wing causes.) They tracked the impact of a privately funded voucher program in New York City from kindergarten in 1997 to college in 2011 — the first time such a long-term study has been completed.

The authors found that an African-American student who received a voucher to attend a private school was 24 percent more likely to go to college than an African-American student who did not win a voucher. The study, released in August, found no significant impact on Hispanic students, while too few white and Asian students were a part of the program to be analyzed.

As the authors recently noted in The Wall Street Journal, "These impacts are especially striking given the modest costs of the intervention: only $4,200 per pupil over a three-year period. This implies that the government would actually save money if it introduced a similar voucher program, as private school costs are lower than public-school costs."

That should be sobering news for the Chicago teachers striking for more pay and benefits from the cash-strapped city governed by President Barack Obama's former chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel. And it should make particularly egregious a recent report by The Sun that city school administration officials spent $500,000 on expensive dinners and hotel rooms while student learning stalled.

With that same amount of money, Children's Scholarship Fund Baltimore, where I am a board member and which offers private vouchers similar to the program studied in New York City, could have offered about 250 scholarships to low-income city children.

So I propose an idea. For those city students who consistently fail state tests, why not offer a voucher to them to attend the school that their parents think is best for them? What would they have to lose? And think how much Baltimore and Maryland would gain if 24 percent more of the city's largely African-American public school children ended up in a dorm at 18, instead of on the streets.

Marta H. Mossburg is a senior fellow at the Maryland Public Policy Institute and a fellow at the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity. Her column appears regularly in The Baltimore Sun. Her email is marta@martamossburg.com.

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