Mayoral candidate might be on to something with voucher proposal

Otis Rolley unveils an education voucher proposal June 13 in Baltimore. (CR/George P. Matysek Jr.)

Otis Rolley is trying to shake things up in his bid to succeed Stephanie Rawlings-Blake as the next mayor of Baltimore.

During a June 13 press conference outside public school headquarters on North Avenue, Rolley said he wanted to close the city’s five worst-performing middle schools and give $10,000 education vouchers to the affected students. The vouchers could be used at Catholic and other nonpublic middle schools in Baltimore. (See The Catholic Review story here).

During the news conference, I asked Rolley what he thought about the contributions made by Catholic schools in the city.  I was impressed that the former Baltimore City director of planning viewed Catholic schools as allies – not enemies – in the common goal of educating children.

“When I think of city kids in city schools, it’s public, parochial and independent schools,” he said. “All of these kids are our kids. All of these schools are our schools.”

That’s a sentiment that’s not always popular in some education circles – although Dr. Andres Alonso, current Baltimore public schools CEO, has gained kudos from Catholic school leaders for keeping lines of communication open between the systems and for serving on Archbishop Edwin F. O’Brien’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Catholic education.

Rolley’s plan isn’t perfect, and there are still a lot of unanswered questions.

Pamela Sanders, principal of St. Ambrose School in Park Heights, pointed out that it will face stiff opposition from teachers unions and others. Rolley will also have legal issues to overcome in appropriating $25 million from the city schools’ budget for the voucher program.

Ellen Robertson, associate director for education with the Maryland Catholic Conference, said there might be some challenges with the candidate’s requirement that enrolled children maintain a consistent level of achievement to be eligible for vouchers.

“These students are coming from underperforming schools to start with,” said Robertson, who was eager to see more specifics in the Rolley plan. “It might be putting a lot of pressure on them.”

Yet, as both Sanders and Robertson pointed out, it’s a step in the right direction for a candidate to put vouchers squarely on the line for public debate.

“At least people are talking about it,” Sanders said. “Putting the question out there raises awareness.”

Catholic schools in the city have consistently produced students who go on to earn college degrees and become productive citizens. Yet, because of increased expenses and declining enrollment, they have struggled to stay open in recent years. Vouchers could be a way of bolstering Catholic schools, while also improving educational opportunities for kids stuck in underperforming public schools.

It will be interesting to see whether Rolley’s proposal gains any traction. In the coming months, The Catholic Review will followup on the plan and explore where the other candidates stand.

Rolley deserves credit for including Catholic and nonpublic schools in his vision for making Baltimore a better place.

“I know defenders of the status quo will attack me and my ideas,” Rolley said. “My plan provides hope to parents of current students.”

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About George P. Matysek Jr.

George P. Matysek Jr. is the assistant managing editor of The Catholic Review in Baltimore. View all posts by George P. Matysek Jr.

2 responses to “Mayoral candidate might be on to something with voucher proposal

  • Edit Barry

    Thanks for covering Otis Rolley’s voucher plan. You leave me with a few questions:
    1. a) How many Catholic schools are left in Baltimore? b) Of those that remain, how many are underenrolled? c) Would $10,000 cover the full cost of tuition, books, uniforms, and transportation? If not, how big a gap would remain for a low income family to fill?
    2) The Archdiocese refuses to lease space to charter schools. How does the Catholic Review square that with the acceleration of the charter school movement that Otis Rolley hopes to achieve with changes to the charter school law?
    3) Are you aware of challenges to the legality of the voucher program in Milwaukee by the ACLU, which is claiming discrimination against students with special needs? (I wrote about this here: http://editbarry.wordpress.com/2011/06/19/otisrolleyeducationpla/).
    These aren’t rhetorical questions. I’m really interested to hear the answers. Thanks, again.

    • George Matysek

      Thank you for your comments! I am not a representative of the Catholic schools, but I will do my best to answer your questions from what I know.

      1. (a) There are approximately 25 Catholic schools within the city itself. (b) I do not have statistics about how many are underenrolled, but I would venture to say that almost all of them are — probably 100 percent. (c) I don’t know. I’m certain the cost of tuition at city Catholic schools is well below $10,000. A quick google search for some schools showed that tuition is $5,000 (parishioner-rate)/$6,000 (non-parishioner-rate) at St. Thomas Aquinas in Hampden; $4,700 at St. Ambrose, Park Heights; $4,990 at Cardinal Shehan School, Northwood; and $5,000 at Holy Angels School in Southwest Baltimore. Most tuition rates would be in the $4,500-$6,000 range for elementary/middle schools. Seems to me that $10,000 would more than meet expenses.
      2. It is not true that the archdiocese refuses to lease space to charter school. The archdiocese just announced that St. Rose of Lima School in Brooklyn will be leased to a charter school. There are some 18 other properties that have or recently have been used for charter schools or Head Start programs, according to the archdiocese. The archdiocese announced this year, however, that it is selective about which closed buildings it leases out of concern for the health of nearby Catholic schools.
      3. I am aware of the Milwaukee challenges.

      Hope that helps and thanks for reading!

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