THE controversy over private management of public schools rekindled last week with the latest release of standardized test data from Baltimore's schools.
Eight of the city's public elementary schools and one middle school are run by Education Alternatives Inc. (EAI), a Minneapolis-based firm. On average, students at the privately run EAI schools did a little worse on the standardized tests than their peers in the city's other schools.
Baltimore's partnership with EAI has been intensely watched, since until this fall it had been the largest such operation in the United States. That changed when EAI recently signed a contract to manage all the public schools in Harford, Conn. But the company's track record in Baltimore remains a critical measure of its effectiveness.
Opponents of Baltimore's experiment with privatization leapt on the newest test figures as proof of their contention that the company couldn't keep its promises - which included improved test scores - and ought to be kicked out of the public-school system.
Earlier test scores, released in June, had indicated students at the EAI schools were progressing. With the new figures apparently reversing that finding, allegations of manipulation of the data - by EAI, the city's school department, or both - have multiplied. Baltimore's City Council this week voted to launch an investigation of the test-score irregularities.
Chief among EAI's critics are the teachers' unions. Gregory Humphrey, an official with the American Federation of Teachers, says it's not just that the EAI-run schools are doing worse on test scores than other Baltimore schools, but that those same schools are doing worse than they were before the company took over. "I think they're running out of excuses now," he says of the firm and its supporters.
But such criticism is considered premature by many. Donna Franks, a spokeswoman for the Baltimore public schools, says more is involved with the test-score data than immediately meets the eye.
She points to some anomalies in the data - such as wild fluctuations in the scores of individual students over the last two or three years - and suggests that the district's system of compiling and analyzing such data may itself be in need of repair.
On such nonquantitative measures as parental approval of the schools and teacher morale, says Ms. Franks, the EAI facilities are doing well. The company is also given credit for sprucing up buildings and bringing in computers. "We think the scoring issue is important, but we don't …