Pay up, Maryland

February 06, 2004|By Jay Gillen

THE BALTIMORE CITY school board's problem, in legal, moral and operational terms, is distinctly not that it spends too much money. Its funding is simply inadequate, and in Maryland, as the Baltimore City Circuit Court ruled in Bradford vs. Maryland State Board of Education, inadequate is also unconstitutional.

Baltimore's students are not pampered, overprivileged, overindulged children in gorgeous surroundings with small, well-equipped classes, individual attention and extracurricular activities galore. Rather, they are stressed by poverty in literally unimaginable ways.

The school board's problem is that it has much too little to spend.

In fact, Maryland has been in continuous violation of Judge Joseph H. H. Kaplan's 2000 order, reaffirmed in 2002, requiring roughly $2,500 per student in additional funding to the Baltimore City public school system every year.

Judge Kaplan further ruled in 2002 that Thornton legislation would have little bearing on the state's failure to serve Baltimore's children until the full 2008 level of funding actually showed up in classrooms. So the state continues to be in violation of the judge's orders while the city still begs for what it won in court four years ago.

In the four years it took the board's $58 million deficit to accrue, $2,500 in additional funding per student adds up to an astonishing $1 billion. There would be no deficit if Baltimore's children had what was due them from the state.

To be precise, the $58 million deficit represents less than 6 percent of the missing $1 billion owed by court order. Underfunding of this magnitude necessarily leads to poor management. Board members, administrators, principals and teachers are constantly stretched thin, distracted from methodical planning, implementation and review. They all deal with more crises in a day than most of us can imagine.

A case in point: Bonnie S. Copeland, the CEO of the school system, ought to be working on increasing learning for her students. She probably wishes she were spending time in schools speaking with principals, teachers, students and parents about learning. She probably wishes she were working on the appalling technology gap between city and suburban schools, or that she were following through on high school reform or developing art and music programs that we know are not extras but rather essential parts of quality education.

Instead, she finds all of her time eaten up with the budget crisis, listening to advice and complaints, figuring out whom to cut or to furlough, which contracts to abort, which programs to end, which politicians to woo. Years from now, someone will ask why Ms. Copeland wasn't more focused on instruction in her first year as CEO, as she said she would be, and the answer is simply that she was putting out a conflagration.

The deficit grew principally not from mismanagement but from the emergencies that arise every day in a city desperately poor.

It grew from replacing pipes that were poisoning children with lead, pipes that should have been replaced years ago, but weren't for lack of money. It grew from increasing salaries to attract and retain teachers in the most difficult positions the state has to fill. It grew from trying desperately to serve children with special needs, from trying to provide summer help to failing students, from trying to give teachers additional training, from trying to educate children laboring under decades of miseducation.

The deficit grew from trying to meet a level of need that ought to be a crime in the nation's fourth-richest state. The board was right, not wrong, to try to meet that need. It was promised that if it could increase student achievement, money would follow. But the board, the teachers, the students, the parents, did increase achievement, while the state still evades its constitutional responsibility.

The state Board of Education is the named defendant in the Bradford case, and it is the state board, not the city board, that should be finding the cash to keep our schools solvent. The state does not need to be persuaded to fund our children's education; it has already been ordered to do so.

A contempt finding and penalty of $58 million payable immediately would help thousands of children cope a little better with yet another year of inadequately funded education.

Jay Gillen is the Algebra Project teacher at the Stadium School. His children attend that school and Baltimore Polytechnic Institute.

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