WASHINGTON -- When kids at nine public schools in Baltimore returned to their classrooms last week, they were in for a few surprises: computers, telephones, and copying machines.

The eight elementary schools and one middle school are being operated on a $26.6 million contract that the city school district has awarded to Education Alternatives Inc., a private company based in Minneapolis.

Baltimore, which like many cities has been battling to educate kids in tough, crime-ridden neighborhoods, has decided to see whether the private sector can help turn around a failing education system.

The schools being run by Education Alternatives will bring some bold changes to 4,800 students, beginning with a teacher plus an intern in every classroom. Under a five-year contract that employs teachers already in the school system, the firm is bringing in new training and teaching methods, along with the technological gear that people find in the workplace.

The company says it can revolutionize inner-city education in Baltimore without being any costlier than the public system. It claims it can make a profit with the help of a privatized maintenance service to reduce custodial and other building costs.

Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander toured the Baltimore schools last week, and hailed them as an example of what innovation and private sector resources may bring to an education system in need of reform.

According to the latest annual statistical report of the Education Department, spending on public and private schools in the United States will reach $445 billion this year, up 5% from last year, and up 40% over the last decade when adjusted or inflation. Spending at public elementary schools, high schools, and colleges is expected to total $363 billion, up from $347 billion last year.

Per pupil spending for public elementary and secondary schools will reach an estimated $6,300 this year, up from $6,100 last year. The average public school teacher's salary, which rose 4% last year, is expected to rise another 4% this year, to $35,800.

Enrollment at U.S. colleges and universities, many of them considered the best in the world, is expected to hit an all-time high of 14.3 million.

But performance of U.S. students continues to be a disappointment when measured against that of kids in foreign countries. In the second International Assessment of Education Progress, 9-year-old students from the United States ranked last in math after kids from South Korea, Nationalist China, Russia, Spain, and Canada. Essentially the same thing happened in the case of 13-year-olds.

In science, the test results were not much different. Nine-year-old Americans came in third, again behind Korea and Taiwan, but slightly ahead of those from Canada, Spain, and Russia. The 13-year-old kids were last again.

In many ways and in many places, the forces for revolutionary change in the U.S. educational system are making headway, and they involve the private sector. This changing environment was dramatized last summer when Yale University President Benno C. Schmidt resigned to take over the Edison Project, a private venture that plans to create a network of 1,000 private schools around the country that supporters hope will serve as a role model for innovative education.

The schools will have an open admissions policy and offer scholarships. They are not intended to take away the brightest students with the money to get in the door, although that is what critics say they will do.

Increasingly, it is plain that a public school system beholden to the old ways, relying on the same old recycled textbooks and classroom presentations, has failed to do the job.

The job does not have to be done with more money. Robert Genetski, an economic consultant in Chicago, figures that the cost of Catholic and other private schooling in his city is from half to three-quarters the cost of public education.

The winds of change are coming in through the cracks of the old classroom doors, and probably for the better.

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