The No. 1 overriding issue confronting city schools today is the system's poverty.
I know I'm not supposed to say things like that. The official line these days -- the politically correct viewpoint -- is that money is not all that important.
And it isn't.
Money can't buy love. Money can't buy friendship. Money can't buy the natural beauty of a sunset disappearing silently over the horizon.
The gentle pounding of snowflakes on a winter's evening?
That's free. It can't be bought.
By the same token, money can't ensure quality teachers and motivated students. Money offers poor compensation for a bloated bureaucracy headed by dim-witted leaders.
So you see, I'm not as shallow about these matters as you may think.
But let me share a fundamental truth with those of you fortunate enough not to know already: When you don't have money, you don't have time to enjoy the sunset. You're too busy hustling to survive.
And city schools are poor.
Administrators, teachers, students and parents spend every day hustling to survive. They ought to be focusing on quality of life issues but, metaphorically speaking, their stomachs are rumbling.
The abject poverty of the school system raises two questions for the rest of us: Does Maryland have the resources to equalize education funding, and does it want to do it?
These are important, yet daunting questions, and we seem to have a hard time focusing on them.
Politicians acknowledge the disparities (how could they deny them?) but then they tend to launch diatribes against mismanagement by school administrators, waste of resources, the incompetence of teachers, the thuggery of students and the indifference of parents.
"Yeah, they're poor," say state legislators, including several of those who are supposed to be representing the city, "but they wouldn't know what to do with the money even if we gave it to them."
This seems to be the downside of human nature: Despising the poor, reveling in their misery.
We in the media often are just as guilty.
We seem so fascinated with documenting the effects of the system's poverty-- the low test scores, the dumb management choices, the poor morale of teachers, the high dropout and absenteeism rates, the decaying physical plants -- that I sometimes wonder whether we aren't pandering to the prurient interests of our suburban readers and viewers.
"This is horrible!" the suburbanites can exclaim from afar. "Thank God my children don't have to go there."
Lost in the sensation, however, are the fundamental questions of whether this state has the will and the wherewithal to change things.
"The bottom line is that this year we are going to push for equality funding in elementary and secondary school education," Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke said yesterday. "It has to be a priority for the legislature. I know we can't do everything, but let's do this."
The mayor said he supports an ongoing effort to mobilize parents from around the state to focus the legislature on equal education funding. He is seeking an alliance with legislators from suburban Washington on the issue.
And he supports the governor's call for a "point of origin" tax that would funnel 5 percent of income tax revenues back to the jurisdiction of employment rather than residence.
But all of these efforts already face substantial opposition in Annapolis. Many legislators are pushing for a delay in allocating -- or reducing the amount of -- the funds mandated this year by APEX, the Action Plan for Educational Excellence, which was the state's great scheme to reduce funding disparities over five years beginning in 1987.
It won't be long before the school system's supporters find themselves on the defensive yet again, trying to explain to scowling legislators why school officials don't make middle-class decisions on a poor man's wages.
Better to address the silent issues: Who wants to help other tTC people's children when times are hard and money is scarce? For that matter, who wants to help other people's children even when times are good?
That is the question we seem to have such a hard time focusing on.
I wonder why?