Schmoke wants report card on 'Tesseract' schools


WASHINGTON -- Though he is upbeat about Baltimore's experiment in school privatization, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke told an audience of teachers here yesterday that he opposes expansion of the project at least until after a formal evaluation.

But the mayor gave strong backing to the involvement of private companies in public schools, citing the nine-school "Tesseract" project and the decision to put Columbia-based Sylvan Learning Systems in charge of federally funded tutoring at six other schools.

Though such projects require community support, "there is no question that privatization is an option," he told members of the American Federation of Teachers, gathered at the Washington Hilton for a conference on educational issues.

"We should not allow ourselves to get into a Hamlet-like internal debate over public education vs. private enterprise," Mr. Schmoke warned.

His comments came as teachers wrestled with the issue of privatization, seen by some as a threat to public schools from companies with little educational experience.

Joining the mayor on the dais was Benno Schmidt, the former Yale University president who is chief executive officer of The Edison Project, a plan to create a nationwide network of custom-designed private schools, at a cost of up to $2.5 billion.

Baltimore is a pioneer in privatization, last year turning over operation of nine schools to Education Alternatives Inc. (EAI), a Minneapolis firm, under a five-year contract worth $26.7 million in its first year.

That project, known as "Tesseract" from a term in a children's science fiction novel, promises clean, efficiently managed schools, a wealth of technology, personalized instruction and low student-instructor ratios.

Last month, school Superintendent Walter G. Amprey said he would support a limited expansion of the program, citing the desire of some parents to add Lemmel Middle School in West Baltimore.

EAI officials, meanwhile, were prepared to go ahead with an 11-school expansion, including eight more elementaries, a middle school and a high school.

But Mr. Schmoke said it is too early to expand the program,

citing the need for demonstrated results in the nine-school pilot. An evaluation of the Tesseract program's first year is due no later than September.

His decision to delay expansion won favorable reaction from the Baltimore Teachers Union, which has criticized the way Tesseract was implemented and questioned claims of success.

"We're pleased that someone is finally saying that we need to evaluate this thing before we go any further," said Lorretta Johnson, co-president of the BTU, who introduced the mayor at yesterday's gathering. "This is the first time he's said that in public."

Mr. Schmoke said he was drawn to the idea of public-private partnership after growing frustrated with student performance and an entrenched school bureaucracy.

"I was particularly concerned that we were failing our poorest and most disadvantaged students," he said. Though the schools need extra money, "We must also make significant changes in the way we deliver our educational services."

The Tesseract model offered a way to "jump-start" school reform, he added. "You literally cut off nine schools from the central bureaucratic hub," freeing them from a central office that is "increasingly resistant to change."

Though he acknowledged that Tesseract's first-year results are largely anecdotal, the mayor said the schools are cleaner, and noted that EAI has paid for computers and other technology at all of the schools. Many parents and staff report more enthusiastic students, he said.

The $1.4 million Sylvan project put the private tutorial company in charge of federally funded Chapter 1 programs at six schools. Those programs help poorly performing students at schools with large numbers of low-income pupils.

Both companies promise major improvements, said Mr. Schmoke, who noted, "If they don't produce the academic advances they promise, their contracts are terminated."

But he also said he sees limits to the amount of privatization that should take place.

"One of the things we don't want to do is simply turn over our schools, to go from complete public ownership to complete private ownership," he said, in response to a question from the audience.

In a separate presentation, Mr. Schmidt said that The Edison Project, which had focused mainly on creating a network of private schools, is now interested in managing public schools as well. The company's first private school is expected to open in September 1995.

"We seek partnerships with public school systems around the country, to work with the forces that are changing public school systems," he said, adding that, eventually, such partnerships could outnumber Edison's own schools. The Edison Project is a partnership formed by Whittle Communications, a Knoxville, Tenn.-based firm whose projects include Channel One, a daily public affairs program beamed to schools around the country, including Baltimore secondary schools.

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