Vouchers for families with children in private schools became the first hot issue in Baltimore's mayoral race yesterday, with Republican nominee David F. Tufaro making the controversial proposal a major plank in his campaign and Democratic opponent Martin O'Malley saying he was strongly opposed to the idea.
Also yesterday, Tufaro appeared to back off from his Tuesday night call for drug testing of all city school students, saying he would only test children whose parents requested it.
During a news conference at Thomas Johnson Elementary School in South Baltimore, Tufaro called for giving families government- funded vouchers to send their children to private or parochial schools.
Tufaro said that vouchers would help retain Baltimore residents who have no faith in the public school system. The candidate, who sends his children to the private Friends School in Roland Park, said many families who cannot afford private school move in search of better public school systems in surrounding counties.
"We do have school choice today, whether recognized or not," said Tufaro, who attended public schools in New York before going to Yale University. "Those who are left behind are those who can least afford it."
Under the Tufaro plan, vouchers would only be available to parents with children in the city's weakest schools.
Tufaro acknowledged that his only direct authority over the school system would be to appoint school board members jointly with the governor.
If elected, said Tufaro, he would use the mayor's office to spur public discussion on issues such as vouchers and attempt to personally recruit quality teachers and principals to work in Baltimore schools.
Focus on early years
O'Malley, who represented Northeast Baltimore in the City Council for eight years before his primary victory this month, said he will focus school reform on early education and work to reduce the number of students sent into special education programs.
"I am not in favor of vouchers at this point," said O'Malley, saying he had looked into the idea, which has also been proposed for Florida schools by Republican Gov. Jeb Bush. "My focus is on the early years, expanding pre-K and after-school programs and finding money for mandatory summer school."
Much of Tufaro's education platform calls for changes that have already been implemented in city schools -- such as zero tolerance toward violent or armed students -- or are being discussed by the school board.
Tufaro also said he would promote regular standardized testing for students and mentors for teachers, all of which have been put in place in the past two years.
'Social promotion' an issue
He is also calling for an end to "social promotion," in which students are passed to the next grade whether or not they have successfully completed that year's school work. Social promotion will soon come up for discussion and a vote by the city school board.
"I do not assume that because children come out of a poor environment they can't achieve," said Tufaro.
But no school board member has suggested, as Tufaro has, that parents be given the opportunity to have their children drug-tested in school.
Noting other health concerns that schools test for -- such as hearing and vision -- a Tufaro position paper issued Tuesday supports drug testing for students with academic or discipline problems.
While calling the failure of public schools the city's "greatest tragedy," Tufaro clarified his position on drug testing yesterday, stating that it would be strictly voluntary.
"My intention is that it be with parental consent," said Tufaro. "If you saw a child was having trouble reading, you might test their vision. I'm suggesting we use it in the same way, as a tool for diagnosing problems."
Reached yesterday by telephone, O'Malley said: "The drug testing idea is an interesting one. I have never really thought about it. I guess I applaud Mr. Tufaro for putting ideas out there and look forward to debating him."
Tufaro said that was exactly the reason he decided to run for mayor: to make sure that new ideas were aired for debate.
The general election will be held Nov. 2.
Pub Date: 9/23/99