Education the defining issue

Urban Chronicle

Deficit: The crisis in schools calls for new thinking on the city's now most pressing problem.

March 18, 2004|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

FOR AT LEAST the past decade-and-a-half, it seemed that when crime and drugs were no longer seen as Baltimore's most pressing problem it could be said that the city had definitely turned a corner.

The crisis in the city's public schools clearly dictates a change in that thinking.

It's not that crime and drug use have disappeared; it's just that the schools crisis has, at least for the moment, overshadowed the city's other problems.

The deficit that precipitated the crisis is quantifiable, and ultimately fixable, though at what cost remains to be seen. The damage to the public's already shaky confidence in the school system is far more difficult to calculate.

Some figures are instructive here. Of city children enrolled in grades 1 through 12, about 15 percent attended private schools, according to the 2000 census. Among whites, nearly 44 percent were enrolled in private schools.

Some Baltimore kids like the offerings and traditions of a private education. But a lot are enrolled because of the shortcomings of the public system.

And that was before the current school crisis.

Compare the city's public-private enrollment numbers with Howard County, where residents on the whole are far wealthier and thus presumably far more able to afford private schools, but the public schools are among the best in the state. About 10 percent of Howard children are in private schools, and the figures are only slightly higher for white kids than for the school population at large.

Over the past several years, city real estate agents have observed a recurring phenomenon: Young couples, attracted by the vitality of city life, will buy a house only to sell it and move to the suburbs once their children start school. A demographer told me a couple of years back that cities interested in attracting new residents shouldn't bother trying to appeal to middle-class families with children because of the state of urban schools.

And that was without a schools crisis.

Claudia Diamond neither moved to the suburbs nor enrolled her daughter in private school when the little girl was ready to start kindergarten. Instead, she enrolled her in Roland Park Elementary and Middle School - long one of the city's handful of elite schools - because Diamond toured the place and liked what she saw.

That was last fall. Diamond has become an articulate and passionate advocate of the crisis-torn school system. Her comments are instructive here.

Diamond acknowledged that because of the crisis there are likely to be second thoughts among prospective students. "I can't blame them," she said. "You read The Sun and you say, `What a mess.'"

Diamond said she and her husband recently asked themselves what they would be saying if they had enrolled their daughter in the private Calvert School instead of Roland Park. Their answer: "Thank God we sent her to Calvert."

Still, she said she is happy with the education her daughter receives at Roland Park, and she doesn't know of any parents of the 60-odd children in the public school's three kindergarten classes who are pulling their kids out of the school system. In fact, she said many believe the crisis will ultimately prove to be cathartic, finally ridding the system of waste and bloat.

"A lot of parents have felt like this isn't such a bad thing that the system is exploding," she said. "It forces a lot of issues on the table."

Maybe. But the crisis also suggests that of the grand triumvirate of urban ills that have long afflicted the city - crime and drugs, blighted properties and poorly performing schools - education may be the most intractable.

Neither the city, nor the city-state partnership, has proved that it can manage the system. And the state has yet to show it can come up with the money to adequately fund an impoverished urban school system.

Despite some improvements in lower-school performance, 85 city schools began the year "identified for improvement" by the state; one in seven middle school pupils is absent on any given day and the high school graduation rate is 54 percent.

Given the relationship between income and achievement, some figures from the 2000 census indicate why more substantial improvement is so hard to come by, crisis or no.

In Baltimore, 26 percent of families with children younger than 18 live below the poverty line. For families headed by single women with children younger than 18 - of which there are more than 17,000 in the city - 38 percent live below the poverty line.

A U.S. Census Bureau report issued this week, "Children and the Households They Live In: 2000," offers more numbers on the kinds of homes that many city schoolchildren come from.

Two out of three of the city's children did not live with two married parents, according to the report. And one out of four did not live with either parent but with a grandparent, other relative or in a foster home, the highest figure in the country.

Over the long run, these numbers are likely to be more defining than the deficit - and much harder to change.

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