A state at risk

March 14, 1995|By Susan Leviton

MOST BUSINESS owners seek thorough and efficient workers, meaning: People who are able to complete a job in a comprehensive and an effective manner.

That is also what the framers of the Maryland constitution meant DTC more than a century ago when they mandated that the state provide a "thorough and efficient" education for all students. The state is to provide every public school student an education that will be complete and effective. Today, that means students should graduate from high school ready to go on to college or earn a living wage.

The American Civil Liberties Union late last year filed suit on behalf of public school students in Baltimore City, charging that they receive an inadequate education. That means lawyers will soon haggle over what "thorough and efficient" means when it comes to educating Maryland's public school students.

Ironically, the state constitutional provision requiring a thorough and efficient education came about because lawmakers in 1867 were concerned that students in the rest of the state weren't getting the high quality of education students in the Baltimore City Public Schools received. It is sad to observe that today almost all of Maryland's lawmakers try to make sure their constituents don't get the kind of education most Baltimore City Public School students receive. Recently released state test scores show that Baltimore City Public Schools are at the bottom of the list when it comes to preparing students for the future.

Some observers say that the ACLU lawsuit -- filed in the names of the parents of 19 children from 12 schools, is simply about getting more money into city schools. It is true that city schools need more money; the $5,182 the city spent on each student in 1992-1993 was 11 percent below the state average. In some cases, the difference can be as much as $54,000 per class. The reason for this fiscal disparity is the state's school funding system that causes a large part of education funds in each community to come from that locality's property and income tax revenues. So, it is no surprise that in areas with a poor property tax base -- like Baltimore City -- there is less money available to pay for education.

It is for that reason a cruel and intolerable inequality exists. With a poor property tax base comes poor people who have access to fewer opportunities to enrich their children's lives. Therefore, Baltimore City begins with many children who live in homes and communities that have little to offer in the way of academic guidance or social and cultural enrichment. Then these children go to schools that often don't provide the bare minimum needed for an adequate education. Often these schools lack well-trained teachers, up-to-date books, sufficient supplies and buildings that meet health and safety codes. The schools' budgets cannot provide the extra resources needed to compensate for the deprivation these students experience in their homes and neighborhoods.

The students who come from communities that give them the most in the way of academic nurturing and support receive the most resources in school. Those who receive the least in their community -- and often need the most support from other sources -- can count on going to the poorest schools. Given this trend throughout jurisdictions with poor tax bases, it is hard to argue that more funds might not make a tremendous difference in the outcomes for the young people who live there. And, if money isn't important to the quality of education, why do some of the loudest protests to redistributing state education funding come from such places as Montgomery County, which has the highest per-pupil funding?

Some observers will maintain, however, that no amount of money spent on education can change the lives of the vast majority of students who come from poverty-stricken homes in the inner city. I would counter that no amount of money alone, spent indiscriminately, will improve the education of any child. But solid educational programs will -- and do.

In some of Baltimore's poorest neighborhoods, some schools are proving that just a little extra money combined with a solid educational plan can make a tremendous difference in student performance. In urban schools across America, dedicated educators are proving that a comprehensive education delivered effectively, in a manner and setting that meet student needs, can turn a child destined for a life of unemployment, poverty and/or even crime into a future taxpayer with promising prospects.

When the courts decide whether students in Baltimore City are receiving a thorough and efficient education, they must frame the issue in the current realities of our economy. A thorough education today must go much farther than the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic. Along with a solid grounding in "the basics," a student's education will not be complete and comprehensive without the development of strong "higher-order

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