Class dismissed

October 10, 2003

WHEN URBAN POLICY analyst David Rusk probes the effects of poverty on Baltimore-area public schools, he finds a festering wound. For it is not news that wherever poor students are concentrated, communities often have allowed schools to fail - and wherever poor children go to school with better-off peers, education happens.

So the continuing flight of the middle class from Baltimore damns those schools abandoned to the poor, Mr. Rusk warns in a new report for the Abell Foundation. He sees signs of the same trouble in increasingly segregated inner-ring county schools, where, the Citizens Planning and Housing Association confirms, lower-income families have fled like their wealthier cousins, seeking better options for their kids.

The solution, Mr. Rusk theorizes, is re-engineering communities. To achieve this, he endorses Montgomery County's model of an inclusionary zoning policy to create mixed-income neighborhoods, and he advocates the development of innovative public schools to serve the deliberately created melting pots.

That is, fix the poverty to fix the schools.

The "politically treacherous" alternative, he notes, is enrolling students across county borders: St. Louis and a few other cities have had mixed success doing this. But county boards of education here aren't inclined to enroll other jurisdictions' worst-off children; even if classism, racism and not-my-babyism were not issues, local taxpayers view public education as a local service.

This is not 1966, when a seminal study that reached similar conclusions about education led to busing to achieve integration. Even the No Child Left Behind Act's benign version of busing - a policy allowing voluntary, district-funded transfers from failing to better public schools - has been a resounding failure. About 27,000 Baltimore City children are eligible, but only about 300 slots are available and only 84 families grabbed the chance to switch schools last year.

Mr. Rusk's compelling theory may well build better-mixed neighborhoods in time, but experience suggests this would not, on its own, spark school improvement; school reform partners in the district, or ties to the charter school movement, would be needed.

Early this year, in a regional improvement plan called Vision 2030, metropolitan leaders deferred to local boards of education to address the "possible relationship" between concentrated poverty and school quality. The plan says: "The key component to dealing with the concentration of poverty is to improve educational opportunities to youth so they are not locked in poverty by the lack of educational opportunities."

In other words: Fix the schools to fix the poverty.

Metro-area leaders cast their lot with the Thornton Commission's recommendations for increased public investment in schools and appealed to the state Department of Education and local boards to deliver smaller community-based schools, small class sizes, stronger curricula, values education and better-trained teachers.

The best of educators can't fix what's wrong in schools where the majority of students are poor, Mr. Rusk has suggested. For the sake of thousands of children currently attending such schools, on this point, let's hold the region's leaders to proving Mr. Rusk wrong.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.