Where does the money go? How in one American city, Baltimore, a big school system managed to spend millions of dollars on bureaucracy and dubious special programs - but all too little on the kids

October 26, 1997|By ERIK LARSON

The Oct. 27 edition of Time magazine contains a special report that examines the successes and failures of public school systems around the country. Time used Baltimore to illustrate the failures of an urban school system where students are suffering because of questionable decisions made by entrenched bureaucrats. The story was accompanied by a sidebar on Canton Middle School, one of the few successes in the city system. The Sun is reprinting the articles in their entirety.

Everybody knows that money is a crucial ingredient in a school's success. There is something absurd, and deeply unfair, about a nationwide system of funding that provides the least amount of money to the most impoverished students. But cries of poverty obscure the role of other, equally powerful forces that determine how well a school system manages the money it does get. Each year, schools receive a torrent of funds. Exactly where this money ends up, however, is often something of a mystery, embedded in budgets that might as well have been written in Sanskrit.

Time set out to track the flow of cash through a single large urban district - Baltimore's - to test the widespread assumption that urban schools fail because they don't have the money to do better. Last year, the city spent $646 million on 110,000 children for a per-pupil total of $5,873, just shy of Maryland's statewide average. Yet the money produced a student body that failed to meet the most rudimentary state standards, as measured in a battery of tests that gauge functional skills in reading, math, writing and citizenship.

The system's interim CEO, Robert Schiller, has called the city's schools "academically bankrupt." Within the district, many administrators and teachers blame this failure on the fact that Baltimore, despite the extra costs of running an urban school system, spends less money per pupil than surrounding suburban counties do, echoing a comparison made in similar school-funding battles being waged from New Jersey to Alaska.

But such comparisons say nothing about why even poor districts somehow manage to produce a handful of excellent schools, such as Baltimore's Canton Middle School, flourishing even though 86 percent of its students fall below the poverty line. Nor do comparisons explain situations where schools spend more than they should. Last year, for example, Baltimore spent $125 million, or 20 percent of its total school budget, on 18,000 students identified as disabled, although many observers believe that about a third of these children aren't disabled at all or at least wouldn't be if the school system had done its job properly in the first place.

Clearly, Baltimore faces expenses its suburban peers don't. With many of its schools in high-crime areas, the Baltimore system spends more than $5 million a year to field its own sworn and armed police force of 112 personnel, whose overtime pay alone would be enough to provide the starting salaries of two dozen full-time teachers. But the city must also pay the routine expenses faced by every school system, the largest of which is always salaries.

Last year, Baltimore spent $260.4 million to pay teachers and other staff members associated with regular instruction. It paid its special-education staff an additional $82 million. The district spent $24.6 million on central administration, of which $18.9 million went to salaries.

Even so, $646 million is a lot of money. Why didn't it buy Baltimore's children even the most basic education? Why is real reform only now coming to Baltimore, when the schools' problems have been so evident for so long? And how did things get so bad in the first place?

When Baltimore's baby boomers wax nostalgic about the public schools of the city's past, they do so with some justification. Although class sizes were larger and schools were segregated by law into white and "colored" facilities, attendance was high.

In 1950, average daily attendance at Baltimore's senior high schools was a stellar 92 percent for both black and white children. In 1954, according to city school records, 83.1 percent of white high school seniors "achieved" in algebra; fully 99.2 percent of black students did likewise.

With World War II, the city underwent the first phase of an amazingly swift transformation. The war brought an influx of poor blacks from the South and poor whites from Appalachia to work in the area's shipyards and aircraft plants. Postwar prosperity, good roads and the rise of the suburban dream triggered an exodus of middle-class whites to adjacent Baltimore County, a migration hastened by the Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education decision, in which the court ruled that segregated schools were unconstitutional.

By last year, black children accounted for 85.1 percent of the city's total enrollment, compared with 33 percent in 1950.

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