School privatization: Baltimore style
A new report from a major foundation in Baltimore recently came out with a report that urges Maryland to change its law so that private operators can come in and improve academic outcomes for urban kids. The report claims that underperformance can be improved by operators with a “track record of success” in other cities. Opening up city schools to charter operators is not new. Lots of cities have done that, without success. Private operators run their schools without much accountability and oversight, providing in
many cases a lower quality education than the public school may have.
No need to retread old territory here. We have enough studies that show charters do not outperform public schools. So, why all of a sudden does Baltimore want to try its hand at a strategy that has not worked elsewhere?
The charter push was made public very recently, just after the Baltimore announced the closure of 26 closing schools. Its budget is shrinking, enrollment declining, and there are few dollars to support the system it has. What’s the solution? Privatization. The new governor has proposed charter schools to save Baltimore from poor academic performance. They have their own operating funds, especially the nationally franchised charters like KIPP. Schools closing, charters taking over. Sounds all too familiar, a story out of Philadelphia or Chicago on the privatization of their schools.
Importing failed policy from other cities is not only a bad idea but one that shows a lack of innovation and faith in Baltimore itself to generate better schools. The solution to chronic underperformance in schools is not as easy as the fans of outsourcing would like to make it sound. Baltimore’s schools serve large numbers of students who live in poverty. Anywhere from 30%-50% of Baltimore’s students live below the poverty line. Since income is the most reliable predictor of academic achievement, schools that serve students in poverty would likely have academic struggles. The solution? Help communities in poverty. There are folks trying to do this through the development of community schools to provide services like physical and mental health clinics, food pantries, and classes for adults.
Privately operated charters may improve test scores, but they will not improve communities. There is more to improving urban education that bumping up reading and math scores. Schools are a public good. When we improve them for the people living in the communities that they serve, then we improve more than test scores. We make a community livelier and better to live in.