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Ballot Stuffing

Schools of Thought

Posted 10/13/1999

School vouchers are all the political buzz—nationally, as Florida becomes the first state to roll out a voucher program this fall, and locally, as the partisan debate in Baltimore's mayoral campaign intensifies just weeks before the general election. But the lines here aren't quite as clear as the local media would have voters believe: GOP candidate David Tufaro—who has been typecast, not entirely fairly, as your typical conservative Republican—isn't saying we must have vouchers, nor is Democrat Martin O'Malley saying we mustn't. Meanwhile, the city's teachers appear to be gearing up for a battle royal over the school-choice debate they reckon is looming.

The 21 points on the education agenda Tufaro unveiled on Sept. 22 ranged from administrative cutbacks to giving teachers merit pay; vouchers were among the last items on the list, grouped with charter schools under a more general call for school choice. While vouchers are standard conservative stock, Tufaro's list included even more of a hair-raiser for liberals—a call for drug testing in schools, either with parental consent or when a student displays academic or disciplinary problems. So what did the next day's Sun headline blare? "Republican Candidate Calls for Vouchers, Drug Testing of Pupils." The next day's story was headlined "O'Malley Opposes Vouchers." Right out of the gate, the mayoral education debate was reduced to boilerplate fare.

The most basic argument against vouchers is that they cannibalize the public schools, sending the best students off to private and parochial schools, taking public funds with them. Tufaro counters that criticism by declaring that parents already exercise school choice, by putting their kids in private schools when they can afford to and moving out of the city when they can't. Besides, he says, because vouchers typically cost less per child then the city spends on public-school students, per-pupil spending in the public schools would actually increase. What he doesn't address, however, is the likely impact of vouchers on a system that is already majority African-American and poor: a system that is even more African-American and poor.

For his part, O'Malley has never said, "No vouchers, no way." What he has said is that for all the aforementioned reasons he doesn't favor them, not now. But he did support state legislation to study vouchers in 1993, and in September he told City Paper he'd be watching the Florida experiment.

"No idea is so taboo that we can't look at it, but I'm not in support of it," he says, adding that he would only consider vouchers if "it can be demonstrated that what we're doing here is not working."

Meanwhile, sensing dangerous momentum on the vouchers front is Ed Horsey, local chair for the American Federation of Teachers' Black Caucus. He'll be attending a conference on the perils of vouchers in Detroit at the end of this month, after which he plans to start rallying the local troops.

"We will be approaching [the next mayor], every major organization, and those who are interested in working to bring to the public's attention the problems regarding vouchers," Horsey says, citing the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, the NAACP, Baltimore's various black fraternal organizations, and the city's 8,000 public-school teachers as hoped-for allies.

The real battle, however, will not be fought in Baltimore but in the state legislature, Horsey says, so his campaign won't be doing any serious rumbling until the General Assembly convenes in Annapolis in January 2000.

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