State must pay city for schools

May 12, 2000|By Susan Goering

IF CURRENT negotiations between the Baltimore City Public School System [BCPSS] and the governor's office fail to garner a substantial down payment on the full amount of money needed to educate Baltimore's children adequately, BCPSS will be compelled to return to court this summer -- another bid to breathe life into the Maryland constitution's promise that all of the state's children get a "thorough and efficient" education.

In an ACLU suit on behalf of city schoolchildren in the mid-1990s, the court ruled they had a right to, but were not getting, an adequate education when measured by the state's own school performance standards.

In a 1997 settlement -- a five-year Partnership Agreement among BCPSS, the state and the city children -- BCPSS promised to make management changes and design a master plan to raise academic achievement. The state funded modest, immediate increases for the city's schools -- $30 million the first year and $50 million for each of the next four -- and promised its "best efforts" toward additional funding after 2000.

The state's promise of "best efforts" came due this spring.

Against the backdrop of a $1 billion-plus surplus (not to mention tobacco settlement money, $6 million of which went to private schools), BCPSS asked Gov. Parris N. Glendening to include only a $49.7 million "down payment" on its full remedy plan. The full plan carried a cost $265 million for pre-school, full-day kindergarten, summer school and after-school programs, high school and middle school reform, arts and music and other necessities -- programs that are standard fare in districts where students score above state average on state exams.

But the governor included not a single penny for the BCPSS remedy plan in his original budget. Only after intense lobbying did the governor come up with $8 million.

Can the state afford $49.7 million? Certainly. Does BCPSS need this $49.7 million? You bet.

Although test scores have improved incrementally under the Partnership Agreement, the city's performance is still far below that of other systems in the state and still is constitutionally inadequate.

Is the price tag for its full reform plan too high? No.

In 1994, the state's Hutchinson Commission on School Funding concluded that an additional $2,000 per pupil per year (on top of adequate foundational funding) was necessary to educate students at risk of educational failure.

Now Metis Associates Inc. the independent evaluator hired by the state and BCPSS to conduct an interim evaluation of BCPSS last year, found BCPSS needs an additional $2,698 per pupil, or $277.9 million annually.

Is BCPSS poised to spend the money wisely?

Yes, according to Metis, which found that BCPSS had "made meaningful progress in improving management" and "meaningful progress in implementing instructional initiatives at the elemen- tary grade levels, recruitment and retention initiatives and professional development initiatives."

Metis also found mixed results in improving student achievement, but noted that mixed results are a "reasonable expectation at such an early stage in a multi-year reform effort."

The state Department of Education, finding itself "in basic agreement with the overall conclusions reached by Metis," reported to the legislature: "[W]hile the specific levels of funding recommended are subject to debate, there is no question that the high concentrations of poverty and high percentages of special needs children in Baltimore City place a heavier burden on the schools and justify calls for increased resources."

The agency believes the city's $49.7 million request is "reasonable and can be expected to positively affect student achievement."

Children, parents and teachers in the city will watch to see if the state is willing to make that down payment. Money produced by the state must be real money, not funds the state already was obligated to appropriate to the BCPSS under previous legislation.

We live in a constitutional democracy. That means that when the legislative and executive branches ignore their constitutional obligations, we have redress to the judiciary. Our state's constitutional drafters wrote a promissory note to all children in the state guaranteeing them the right to an adequate education.

Maryland has defaulted on this promissory note to Baltimore's children. But, in the spirit of Martin Luther King Jr., we refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the bank of justice and the great vaults of opportunity in this state.

Susan Goering is president of the Maryland chapter of the ACLU.

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