Making money work for schools More funds challenge city system to improve

November 24, 1996|By ERIC SIEGEL AND JEAN THOMPSON | ERIC SIEGEL AND JEAN THOMPSON,SUN STAFF

For Baltimore public schools, now comes the hard part.

It took more than a year of negotiating and posturing, a battalion of lawyers and the iron will of two judges to forge a tentative agreement to boost Baltimore's education budget by $254 million and expand the state's management role.

But even that Herculean effort -- which is to culminate in the signing of a final agreement this week -- pales in comparison to the task ahead: using the money to make a difference in student achievement.

Though hard won, the amount, to be paid over five years, would be modest when measured against the needs of the 110,000-student school system and its children.

Two of every three children live in poverty. With their families unable to afford stable housing, nearly one of four changes schools during the year. One of five is absent from school each day. One of six receives special education. One of seven drops out of high school.

Starting teacher salaries are less than those elsewhere in the state. School buildings are, on average, 30 years old and need repair.

And though pockets of academic excellence can be found, student achievement is hindered, in the view of many in and out of the system, by a lethargic and unresponsive bureaucracy.

The bottom line: Only one of seven city schoolchildren receives satisfactory scores on the annual state performance tests -- compared with two of five statewide.

The state is offering $230 million in new instructional money and $24 million in additional construction funds over five years -- an average of $50.8 million a year. That would be on top of the city's current $653 million annual budget.

In return, the system's top management is to be overhauled, to take better advantage of the windfall.

"There's no question that the $50 million well spent will improve student performance. The question is how much," said Robert C. Embry Jr., president of the Abell Foundation and former member of the city and state school boards.

"There's no question that a well-run school system will improve student performance. The question is how much," he added.

How much is hard to predict, because the settlement contains no blueprint for school reform.

City and state negotiators, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Maryland Disability Law Center decided that the overarching pact should not tie new leaders to specific programs or proposals. Instead, it should set benchmarks for school reform.

Critics do not expect the agreement to have much effect anytime soon.

They point out that the money would average only about an 8 percent increase in the system's annual budget, three-quarters of which now goes for salaries and benefits.

In the first year of the deal, the city would get $30 million in new aid, or about $272 a student. That would boost the city's per-pupil expenditures from $5,873 to $6,145 -- still less than the 1994-1995 statewide average of $6,337 per pupil.

The city-state agreement is "moving in the right direction" but is no more than a "substantial drop in the bucket," said Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, an organization of the country's 50 largest school systems, including Baltimore.

"It still leaves the Baltimore schools below the statewide average, with higher than average needs," he said.

Even with $50 million a year in added aid during the last four years of the agreement, or $500 per student per year, the city's per-pupil spending would still lag behind current spending in Anne Arundel ($6,452), Kent ($6,689), Howard ($6,793) and Montgomery ($7,697) counties.

The disparity exists because Baltimore, with less local wealth, is limited in how much local money it can put into the schools.

"Parents are still going to have a sense of unfairness compared to other subdivisions" around the state, acknowledged Malissa Ruffner, an attorney for the ACLU of Maryland, which sued the state on behalf of several Baltimore parents and their children.

If financial inequity between school systems seems deeply entrenched, rooted as it is in local wealth, so, too, does the disparity in student achievement.

Among the state's 24 school systems, Baltimore ranked 14th in per-pupil spending last year -- about in the middle of the pack.

Yet students in all 10 counties that spent less per pupil scored significantly better than city students on annual state exams. In three of those counties -- Carroll, Frederick and Harford -- students are among the highest-achieving in the state.

And some city schools with low classroom budgets still produce high test scores: Last year, Glenmount Elementary, the city's consistent top scorer, had one of Baltimore's lowest per-pupil allocations.

The evidence suggests that improved spending alone will not solve city schools' problems. Whether management is the key also remains to be seen.

The state stockpiled evidence of alleged mismanagement to press its claim that to improve, Baltimore schools need new leadership, not more money.

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