Republican mayoral candidate David F. Tufaro proposed a set of sweeping educational changes for the city's ailing public school system last night, including school vouchers and widespread drug testing for Baltimore's students.
The 21-point proposal would attack a plethora of problems that have beset the city schools for years. At its base, Tufaro's plan is designed to break up the "government monopoly on public education" and force improvement through competition.
Tufaro, who won the GOP nomination last week and will oppose City Councilman Martin O'Malley, a Democrat, in the November general election, plans to release three other major initiatives in the coming weeks. They will address neighborhood revitalization, crime and recreation.
Calling the failure of the public schools the "greatest tragedy" to befall the city, Tufaro said hundreds of thousands of children have been "cheated of a fundamental right" to an education.
"The big difference between me and O'Malley on education is if you look at where his support is coming from -- he is part of the problem," Tufaro said, referring to the endorsement O'Malley received from Maryland Comptroller William Donald Schaefer, a former Baltimore mayor. "City schools have been neglected for years -- starting with Schaefer."
While Tufaro's most startling proposal is to adopt drug testing system-wide, his plan also calls for an end to social promotion, restoring funds for arts courses and libraries, restricting special education, diverting more resources to hire additional teachers, and replacing seniority-based pay raises with merit pay for teachers.
Drug testing would begin in "selected schools" before being adopted citywide. It would be instituted for students with parental approval and then generally for students with discipline or academic problems, Tufaro said. Students who refuse would be subject to disciplinary action, including transfer to schools for disruptive students.
Noting that such testing is allowed in English boarding schools and in the United States military, Tufaro said: "I'm suggesting drug testing as a way to help identify problems. Just like vision and hearing tests."
Tufaro is recommending that the schools use hair testing, which is proved to be more effective, instead of urine tests. Students who test positive would be referred to drug treatment programs.
Reaction was swift.
Baltimore Teachers Union President Marietta English described the proposal as "quacky," saying it would violate students' Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable search and seizure.
While Tufaro claims his plan is constitutional, legal scholars say the system-wide drug testing program would be precedent-setting.
Jeffrey Rosen, a constitutional scholar at George Washington University, said Tufaro's proposal might survive a court challenge if the students tested had a history of drug abuse.
The Supreme Court has never ruled on a universal school drug-testing program, but the court ruled 6-3 in 1995 that an Oregon school district could randomly test student athletes.
Valerie V. Cloutier, assistant attorney general for Maryland and principal counsel to the State Department of Education, said she believes consensual testing would be acceptable, but has qualms about going any further.
"To go as far [as Tufaro] is proposing raises concerns in my mind. It's very troubling to me under the Fourth Amendment," said Cloutier, who noted that she has not read the proposal.
Tufaro's voucher proposal and his call to replace teacher seniority pay with merit pay are also drawing sharp criticism from English and other schoolteachers.
"School choice is a sham to take money away from public schools," said English.
Tufaro, armed with statistics that show African-Americans overwhelmingly support school choice, believes school choice is the only policy that can stem the city's population loss.
"We already have school choice," Tufaro said. "People choose to move their kids out of the city into better schools, or the wealthy people choose to send their kids to private schools."
Tufaro said his plan would give students vouchers so they can attend private, parochial or suburban public schools.
Tufaro provided no firm cost estimates or how he would pay for his educational plan, except to say he would gut the Public Works Department and the reduce the number of city vehicles.
Tufaro also outlined plans to revamp the way teachers receive raises. The candidate said he would replace the pay raises given annually for the first 28 years with regular raises for 10 years, followed by merit-based raises starting in the 11th year.
Tufaro discussed his plan yesterday at a city Board of School Commissioners public forum.
"My first impression of him is here is another person who wants to fix the system that does not know it," said Matt S. Wernsdorfer, a teacher at Patterson High School. "But he carries himself fine, so maybe that is just the way I react to any Republican."
Sun staff writers Devon Spurgeon and Rafael Alvarez contributed to this article.
Pub Date: 9/22/99