Balto. teachers union head: Rolley's voucher plan isn't the answer

Mayoral candidate Otis Rolley III announced last week his "platform" on the future of education for Baltimore City's youth. The cornerstone of Mr. Rolley's plan is a pledge to fund a private school voucher program to address what he has characterized as Baltimore's failing middle schools. Unfortunately, this campaign promise is neither original nor a realistic way of improving outcomes for our students.

Baltimore City, as with every jurisdiction in Maryland, has an obligation to provide its youth with a quality public education open to all regardless of race, religion or socio-economic status. While I agree with Mr. Rolley's belief that "our future is directly tied to the success or failure of our schools," I assure you that divesting public schools of $25 million will do more to damage our children's future than to help it.

First, Mr. Rolley's vouchers, or "school choice" as the system is commonly known, are not truly vouchers, as they will not cover the full tuition and fees charged by the private and parochial institutions in the Baltimore area. Mr. Rolley proposes a $10,000 grant be handed out to parents who would like to send their child to private school in lieu of a public education. However, $10,000 would not cover the total tuition costs of an incoming freshman at any of the Baltimore area private schools ranked in the state's top 100. In many instances, $10,000 is less than half of the tuition cost, not to mention the extra fees that nearly all private schools charge for things such as books, technology use, athletics and enrollment.

Second, a multitude of studies throughout the years have shown that vouchers create a segregated system, both racially and socio-economically. This segregation is exacerbated even further when applied to urban areas with higher concentrations of low-income families who cannot afford private school tuition and fees despite a government subsidy. Carol L. Ziegler and Nancy M. Lederman, who reviewed a pilot voucher program in New York City in a 1991 Fordham Urban Law Journal article noted, a "concern that vouchers will create a two-tiered system of schools divided along economic and racial lines…" In Arizona, an expert calculated that 76 percent of the money handed out in the voucher program in the Phoenix area went to children already in the private school system. In other words, wealthy parents received a discount coupon to send their child to a private school they could already afford, while lower income parents are left to try to pay the difference to afford their children the same chance.

Third, vouchers will cost Baltimore City jobs. Fewer students in the public school system mean that fewer teachers will be hired or retained. Given the current economic climate, and recent battles over teacher retention, it can be assumed that these cuts will affect both younger and newer teachers, thus stunting the development of our next generation of educators, and older, more experienced teachers, who earn higher salaries. Either way, taking away a substantial portion of per student funding, as proposed by Mr. Rolley, will have an adverse effect on the job security of many city teachers.

Finally, all recent evidence suggests that Baltimore City schools are improving, and at a surprisingly high rate. Enrollment of city schools increased for the first time in four decades in 2008-2009. In 2010, the number of students exceeding expectations on state tests doubled. The largest and most significant subgroups of students, including students with disabilities, Hispanic students and limited English proficiency students all increased scores in both reading and math, with African American students showing steady improvements in the latter category. Three years into a radical shift in the education policy of Baltimore City, improvement is being shown at a healthy rate across the board. Why, Mr. Rolley, should we pull funding from our public schools, when it is clear that our reforms are working?

Mr. Rolley's voucher platform sounds like campaign rhetoric designed to show his willingness to challenge the norm. Unfortunately, he has failed to see the progress that students and teachers are making each and every day in Baltimore's public schools. To say nothing of the constitutionality of using taxpayer dollars to send students to religious schools, it is clear that a proposed voucher system is detrimental to our students, detrimental to our teachers, and detrimental to Baltimore City.

Marietta English, Baltimore

The writer is president of the Baltimore Teachers Union.

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