Rolley urges vouchers, mayoral control of Baltimore schools

Mayoral candidate and former city planning director Otis Rolley III has vowed to offer private school vouchers to students zoned to attend failing middle schools and says he would lobby to restore mayoral control to the city school system.

"Our future is directly tied to the success or failure of our schools," Rolley said in an interview. He is slated to unveil his education plan across from school headquarters on North Avenue on Monday.

Rolley, whose eldest daughter is a third-grade student at Roland Park Elementary School, believes better schools would keep more families in Baltimore and persuade others to move to the city.

His education plan calls for closing Baltimore's five worst-performing middle schools and giving students $10,000 vouchers to use at private or parochial schools. The students would also be able to attend the public middle school of their choice under his plan.

"It's in middle school that we're losing kids," he said. "I think it's crucial when we're talking about rebuilding Baltimore to have a real choice for parents."

His education platform represents a departure from the current administration and the other mayoral challengers.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, whose daughter also attends a public school, charged a task force last fall with drafting a report to analyze how to pay for improvements to school buildings. The report, which was originally scheduled to come out in February, should be released later this month, a spokesman said.

Despite two years of budget deficits, Rawlings-Blake has doubled funding for Teach for America. She also funded school-based health centers, after threatening to slash their budgets in a preliminary spending plan last year.

Rawlings-Blake worked closely with the Baltimore Teachers Union to approve a new contract that offers pay raises based on a teacher's effectiveness in the classroom. New teacher applications for next year have doubled since the contract was approved, according to her campaign.

Rawlings-Blake points to improving graduation rates for African-American male students, rising elementary and middle school test scores and increased school enrollment for two consecutive years for the first time in decades.

City Councilman Carl Stokes, who is also running for mayor, is one of the founders of a charter school, the Bluford Drew Jemison STEM Academy. Stokes advocates school choice for all students, and increased spending on schools. He says he would boost school funding by 2 percent over the next decade.

Baltimore Board of Realtors vice president Joseph T. "Jody" Landers has pledged during his mayoral campaign to urge businesses in "supporting and marketing" charter schools.

And state Sen. Catherine Pugh would increase parental participation in education, create more recreational and job opportunities for young people and start summer programs for high school students who are interested in science and math.

The $25 million needed to pay for vouchers would come from the school system's budget and would need the approval of the state legislature, Rolley said.

He says he would also lobby the legislature to return control of the city's school system to the mayor. In 1997, then-Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke signed a consent decree that turned over control of the school system to a city-state partnership, resulting in a $254 million boost in state aid over three years. The school system was embroiled in several lawsuits at the time that could have resulted in a forced state or federal takeover.

The move was backed by the father of Rawlings-Blake, the candidate Rolley is seeking to unseat. The late Del. Howard P. Rawlings persuaded city leaders that it was in the best interests of the city.

The following year, the General Assembly codified the partnership. Since then, the city school board has been appointed jointly by the governor and mayor.

Although city schools have improved over the past 15 years, both Sheila Dixon and Martin O'Malley had floated the idea of returning mayoral control of the school board during their tenures as mayor.

"There needs to be accountability to the citizens in a very real way," Rolley said. Rolley said he has not yet approached state legislators to see if they would back his plan, which would require a change in state law.

"We can only improve Baltimore's future by improving Baltimore's schools," said Rolley. "Our future is directly tied to the success or failure of our schools."

Rolley said he would forge public-private partnerships to construct or significantly renovate 50 schools over the next decade, a model that has been employed in Washington, D.C., and Greensville, South Carolina. He noted that city officials were considering a partnership with a developer to build a new Baltimore arena.

"It's better to have a strong school system than a sexy arena," Rolley said.

Rolley describes his ideas as "radical" and "very aggressive," but said such change is necessary to improve schools.

"If our schools are not preparing our kids for success, they're preparing them for prison or the grave," he said.

Baltimore Sun reporter Liz Bowie contributed to this article.