When Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke decides the fate of Baltimore's school privatization venture this summer, he's likely to be looking as much at political polls as at test scores at the "Tesseract" schools.
The mayor, who has threatened to pull the plug on the experiment unless student achievement improves, says he doesn't regret having hired Education Alternatives Inc. three years ago to manage nine city schools.
"It is going to be an election issue, but I'm really comfortable talking about it as an election matter because I think what it shows is our intolerance with the status quo, that we're willing to take risks as long as they're not detrimental to the children," Mr. Schmoke said recently.
But he's carefully distanced himself from EAI in recent months. In the midst of a re-election campaign, the mayor is being challenged by City Council President Mary Pat Clarke, a vociferous critic of EAI.
His radio campaign commercials don't mention Tesseract. "The Schmoke Progress," a campaign brochure that says the mayor "made education the top priority of city government" during his eight years in City Hall, devotes three pages to his education accomplishments - but not a single word to EAI.
And the mayor recently supported Carl Stokes, a City Council member running for council president, in his attempt to subpoena more EAI financial data.
Mr. Schmoke says his decision will be based on a $207,560 independent evaluation of the program, due this summer from the Center for Educational Research at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, and Tesseract schools' performance on standardized tests this spring.
And if the results are mixed?
Mayor Schmoke chuckles. "It will depend," he says, "on how mixed they are."
At the least, Mr. Schmoke says, he will insist that EAI's five-year contract, nearing the end of its third year, be renegotiated. The contract, he said, must be "performance-based," and EAI must agree to the key provision: "If we fail to do it by your measurement, you don't pay us."
Mrs. Clarke, who voted a-gainst the Tess-eract contract three years ago, notes she ar-gued unsuccessfully for such performance requirements from the beginning.
Like other critics, she complains the privatization experiment siphons off millions of dollars from other schools in a desperately poor district without improving student achievement.
"From the outside looking in, this looks like a bold initiative," she said. "But it turns out to be inconclusive, costly and nontranslatable: We can't afford to do the same in every school if we wanted to.
"We have spent millions that have gone directly to EAI, not to our children - not the ones in the EAI schools, not the ones in the other schools. We have squandered the money."
Because the results have been disappointing so far, the experiment has few passionate advocates. Walter G. Amprey, the superintendent, continues to defend it.
EAI has moved to strengthen its position by busing Tesseract parents to council meetings and paying a private pollster to gauge opinion in city neighborhoods. The company also hired two black executives away from Xerox and gave them visible roles to allay criticism that the Minnesota firm, whose top executives were white, is profiting at the expense of black Baltimore children.
Some parents have united to support Tesseract and staunchly defend EAI's work here.
"Our children have more than Baltimore City would provide for the children, and I know because I've been here 15 years," says Hope Allen, a longtime parent volunteer and the mother of two children at Dr. Rayner Browne Elementary, a Tesseract school in East Baltimore.
EAI's work here is viewed nationwide as a test of whether private enterprise can help save inner-city schools. EAI's other contract is to run the entire school system in Hartford, Conn. Teachers and school board members have been critical there, as EAI began by pro-posing a budget that would cut jobs.
John T. Golle, EAI's chief executive, believes Tesseract parents will rally to his company's aid in Baltimore.
"There would be a mass rebellion, in my opinion, if they ever tried to take back from the parents that which they have now been given," he said. "The have-nots all of a sudden have something that the haves don't have - good, clean, safe schools, technology. . . . Just try to take that away from the have-nots. Just try. I dare you, you just try."
His predictions notwithstanding, EAI's efforts to marshal parents have yet to demonstrate anything resembling mass rebellion. About 40 members of the Tesseract Parent Coalition showed up at a City Hall demonstration last month.
Lined up against Tesseract are some tenacious opponents. The Baltimore Teachers Union and its parent union, the American Federation of Teachers, launched a national campaign against EAI after it replaced aides with nonunion interns who were paid less.
"We've wasted enough money on this so-called experiment without results, at least without academic results," said Irene B. Dandridge, the BTU president. "The children are doing worse than when they started on this. It just isn't working, and I don't know why the mayor keeps throwing good money after bad."
Other unions and community groups, including the Baltimore City Council of PTAs, also have criticized the experiment.
"We resent EAI's taking of precious resources in behalf of a for-profit enterprise whose goals have never been made clear," said Carol Reckling of Baltimoreans United In Leadership Devel-opment (BUILD), a church-based activist group.
While Mrs. Clarke has attacked Mayor Schmoke's leadership, she has not made the city's deal with EAI a focus of her campaign. Nor has she demanded an immediate end to the contract.
"I am tired of the education debate revolving around contractors, superintendents and the like," she said. "I care about children, schools, teachers, principals, parents: That's where the debate should be, and I am not going to contribute to the distractions we've been experiencing."
Dr. Amprey, the city official most closely identified with EAI, seems resigned to the possibility that election-year politics will doom the experiment. The superintendent professes not to know which way the mayor is leaning.
"I don't know what will happen. If it looks real bad, the mayor and [campaign manager Larry S. Gibson] may get together and decide we're in big trouble or something," Dr. Amprey says.
Still, Dr. Amprey argues that the system has learned much from the Tesseract experiment about shifting power to the schools. He says the good of having hired EAI "far outweighs the bad - even with regard to the dollars that have been spent."
"I wish I could go to sleep and wake up on Sept. 13 [the day after the primary]," Dr. Amprey says. "I just see so much of all that we are all doing being dominated by this election."
And he was almost fatalistic about the chance that if EAI goes, he might too. "If and when that comes, it's going to blindside me," he says.