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Teachers union head misses the mark in critique of Rolley's voucher plan

While I have little desire to get into a philosophical debate with the teachers' union over the concept of vouchers in general, I feel compelled to respond to Marietta English's commentary in The Sun about Otis Rolley's education platform. ("Balto. teachers union head: Rolley's voucher plan isn't the answer," June 22).

Ms. English accuses Mr. Rolley of including vouchers in his platform as "campaign rhetoric," yet she herself relies pretty heavily on rhetoric to criticize it. For example, she cites a study of a pilot program in New York that suggests a broad voucher program would result in "a two-tiered system of schools divided along economic and racial lines." And she points to another researcher in Arizona who estimates that vouchers in that state were a windfall for wealthy parents whose students were already in private schools.

Both of these examples are red herrings meant to paint Mr. Rolley's proposal as class warfare or, even worse, a solution that will further divide our city along racial lines. First of all, he is not recommending a broad, system-wide voucher program as a "solution" to the poor quality of our schools. Mr. Rolley has proposed a very targeted — and limited — use of vouchers as an immediate remedy for students in our worst middle schools, not as a long-term fix for the district's problems. It is a recognition that, although some improvements have been made, it is unfair for us to ask our current students to suffer through inadequate schools while we make incremental improvements that may help future generations of students.

Secondly, Ms. English ignores the fact that Mr. Rolley called for means testing these limited vouchers, preventing the kind of windfall that Arizona may have provided to wealthy parents. Not to mention the fact that the students at Baltimore's worst performing middle schools are virtually all students of color.

Ms. English also expresses concern that pulling up to $25 million in funding out of the district's budget will somehow halt the reforms that are working. Again, there has been some limited improvement, but it is not across the board, and it is not enough. Mr. Rolley's limited voucher program would no doubt help some students access better schools immediately. And since BCPSS has a budget that surpasses $1 billion per year, it is unlikely that this small program will derail other reform efforts of the district. It is even feasible that closing a handful of poor-performing schools might actually make it easier for the district to continue the gains that have been made in other schools.

Another criticism from Ms. English is that since $10,000 isn't enough to cover the tuition at places like Gillman or Friends, Mr. Rolley's voucher program would have no value to the targeted families. I say let's test that theory out. Let's ask Baltimore's families what they think. I personally think that there are plenty of parochial schools that perform better than Baltimore's worst middle schools where $10,000 would more than cover costs. And there are plenty of other families who might be able to cover half the cost at the more elite institutions. For them, that $10,000 voucher could make those schools accessible. Where is the harm in testing the market and seeing if it helps even some of the kids at the worst-performing schools?

Ms. English's last point — and the one I suspect she cares most about — is the idea that "fewer students in the public school system means that fewer teachers will be hired or retained." But that is only partly true. It, no doubt, means fewer teachers at BCPSS. But Mr. Rolley's proposed voucher program would be limited to schools in Baltimore City. Private and parochial schools hire teachers too, don't they? The net impact on the number of teaching jobs in the city would be zero, though fewer of those jobs would be dues-paying union jobs within BCPSS. And that may be what is really driving Ms. English's criticism.

Douglass Austin, Baltimore

The writer is the former chief of staff of the Baltimore City Public School System and father of a BCPSS middle school student.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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