Cash alone won't save schools What needs to be changed is behavior, but few admit it

December 15, 1996|By DONALD F. NORRIS

Like a bad penny, the issue of school funding for Baltimore City will be back before the citizens of Maryland sooner rather than later - perhaps in five years when the proposed deal between the city and the state expires. By then, an extra $250 million or more will have been spent on city schools, but the outcome will be no better than today, and quite possibly, worse.

Why? Because more money will not solve a problem that isn't solely or even primarily caused by a lack of money.

The city school system has some problems that cannot be ignored: deplorable conditions in some school buildings, the lack of up-to-date textbooks for all students, the lack of safety in and around some schools, the incompetence of some teachers and mismanagement by some administrators.

These problems cry out to be remedied, and more money will help to address at least some of them. But there are other factors that money can't fix, and the shame of the matter is that hardly anybody has acknowledged this.

In the late 1960s, research by James Coleman showed that the socioeconomic backgrounds of students (basically who the students' parents were) was the most important single input into the educational system. No other variable, including school funding, came remotely close to having the impact on educational achievement that students' backgrounds had.

Moreover, there hasn't been any research since then that has seriously called Coleman's findings into question.

One need only examine comparative data from Maryland's 24 school systems to know that lack of money isn't the sole or even main problem for Baltimore City.

For example, in 1994-95, the per-pupil cost of education in the city was $5,873. This was only about $500 less per pupil than the state average of $6,337. Meanwhile, two counties in the Baltimore metropolitan area spent even less per pupil than the city.

Carroll County spent $5,795 per pupil, and Harford County spent $5,697. We can look to the Eastern Shore and Western Maryland for similar examples. Caroline County spent $5,262 per pupil, and Garrett County spent $5,795.

If the argument that money matters were totally correct, one would expect that educational achievement in jurisdictions that spend more per pupil [See Money, 6f] would be higher than in those that spend less.

But that's not the case.

By nearly all measures, students in other jurisdictions in the state, including those that spend less per pupil, have higher achievement rates than those in the city.

For example, the city's dropout rate for the ninth through 12th grades is about 14 percent. The dropout rates for Caroline, Carroll, Garrett and Harford counties range from 3 percent to 5.5 percent.

Students in those four counties scored higher (sometimes dramatically) on the 11th-grade Maryland functional tests and the eighth-grade comprehensive tests of basic skills than did students in Baltimore public schools.

And a higher proportion of high school graduates in three of the four counties (Caroline being the exception) went on to college than students in city schools.

Why haven't these facts surfaced in the debate about public education in Baltimore? Why has the debate focused almost exclusively on funding?

First, there are important interests - including key civic and community organizations - that would not be well served by admitting that money isn't the answer.

Meanwhile, city officials can claim success by getting more money for the schools, and the state can claim success by providing more money while gaining additional control over the city schools. Both of the big players in the debate, then, can claim that they have won. Unfortunately, the children of Baltimore lose.

Second, because of the racial dimension of the issue (most of Baltimore's students are African-American), public debate has been less than candid.

One suspects, for example, that the African-American community and city leaders are fearful to admit that something other than money is the main problem because it would expose their failure to deal with what is essentially a community problem.

One also suspects that white Marylanders, including civic leaders, politicians and just plain citizens, are fearful that raising the student background issue will open them up to being labeled racists.

Unfortunately, the fears of both groups prevent an open and honest discussion of the real problems affecting education in the city schools. And without such a discussion, the search for solutions will be misguided and the solutions faulty.

The final reason why the debate has not moved beyond money is that to do so would require a search for the real culprit. That search would produce results that few want to hear and fewer still want to do anything about.

Why? Because the problem is poverty.

Baltimore and other cities house very high concentrations of the very poor who, partially because of poverty, are unable to compete successfully in almost any sphere of life, including education.

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