Baltimore City Schools in Crisis

Give the children their due

March 03, 2004|By Susan Goering

CAN BALTIMORE CITY children get an adequate education without competent teachers in the classroom? Without summer school, if they need it to get promoted to the next grade?

Will they have these if the state abrogates union contracts, causing good teachers to leave Baltimore pre-emptively or go on strike? Or if the state forces the city public school system to borrow to meet payroll, effectively pushing the accumulated debt into future years, mortgaging the children's future?

These are the questions that must be posed and answered as city and state officials negotiate to resolve the Baltimore schools crisis.

And critical questions they are, because the Maryland Constitution obligates the state to give all children the opportunity for an adequate education as measured by the state's own standards.

Baltimore Circuit Judge Joseph H. H. Kaplan declared in 2000 that the city needed at least an additional $200 million to $260 million in state funding a year to be able to give children the constitutionally required education they are due. The Thornton Commission confirmed two years later that the needs were even greater. So far, the city school system has received only down payments each year. Had it received the full amount due -- about $1.3 billion over the five years -- it would not have a deficit.

Should the city schools have a financial system in place to correctly track expenditures so that overspending does not occur? Absolutely. That must be fixed.

But there is enough blame to go around (or responsibility to assume). The school board should have tracked expenditures better in its zeal to institute needed educational reforms. The school staff should have established systems and stayed within their budgets. The state should have provided accounting assistance as it watched the deficit grow and realized that its academic directives cost money. The only group without blame people in this mess are the children.

But let's put all this in perspective.

The $58 million deficit at issue is about 3 percent of the city school system's budget for the last two years. And there appears to have been no misfeasance. Rather, the money was spent on real reform -- summer school and teacher mentoring that boosted student achievement, resulting in higher reading and math scores at the elementary level for several years (some increases outpacing even the better-heeled suburban districts) and higher graduation rates. Independent audits have shown that these reforms have had a measurable and real effect in improving education.

If the state wants to have more "oversight," it should provide more funding, not just loans. Loans merely eat into next year's budget. The Baltimore school system has been chronically and severely underfunded. The cuts are already hurting children's education. It is fundamentally unfair to hold the city to meeting state and federal standards (state achievement tests, high-stakes testing and the federal No Child Left Behind law) without the money to do it.

Where do we go from here?

There is no question that the city school system needs to get its books in order, possibly through an oversight financial body or arrangement with city or state budget departments.

The state must provide sufficient funds to make up the shortfall. Call it a bailout or an accelerated phase-in of constitutionally required funding. But the additional funds should not be in the form of a loan that shoves the deficit into next year and mortgages the system's future. Banks make loans. Governments make up shortfalls and fulfill their constitutional obligations.

Finally, if an investigation uncovers misfeasance by school system, then heads should roll. But punishing the children for adults' mistakes is not only morally wrong and practically shortsighted, it is unconstitutional.

In the end, we cannot afford to punish the children for the mistakes of adults. They have already suffered for too long. If there is one constitutional imperative, it is that the children's education must not suffer.

Susan Goering is the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland.

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