Baltimore parents must hold schools accountable

March 22, 2004|By Caroline Amport

ACCOUNTABILITY IS the new buzzword around town.

By definition, to be accountable is to be answerable for one's conduct and obligations. Implicit in this is active questioning by a constituency. Despite recent assertions, accountability is not achieved by simply adding a line to someone's job description and having them submit periodic reports.

For Baltimore schools, accountability will be achieved only if parents start asking questions and demanding answers from those responsible for their children's future.

The Baltimore City school system serves about 91,000 children and has a budget of $914 million - larger than most towns' total yearly budgets.

On average, Baltimore spends $9,695 per pupil - far more than any other school system in Maryland. For people not familiar with Baltimore, this figure suggests an adequately funded system that places the students first and provides them with the necessary resources to learn. Sadly, the true picture is one of underperforming students, high truancy and drop-out rates and underresourced classrooms.

I was fortunate enough to have been educated in one of the best public school systems in the country, in Wilton, Conn. A town of 17,000, the school budget for the current year is $47.8 million - less than the swelling Baltimore school deficit and only slightly more than the recently authorized bailout loan. This year, the town spent an average of $11,382 per pupil, a mere $1,687 more than Baltimore. Considering Baltimore is a financially strapped city and my hometown is a prosperous Connecticut suburb of New York, I expected these numbers to be further apart.

It may seem odd or even downright incorrect to compare two places so different. Admittedly, there are very few similarities. But the more I've watched the current school crisis unfold, the more I've realized there is an element in all schools - big and small, urban and rural - that can make or break the system: parental involvement.

Politicians, union leaders and school board officials feel the need to remind us that parents and children are the real stakeholders in this city's current crisis. But the people we haven't been hearing from in any significant way are the parents of Baltimore's children.

Unlike in Baltimore, 90 percent of the kids in Wilton go on to college. Many of those, like myself, go even further. Quite frankly, the parents in town wouldn't have it any other way. Parents in Wilton are everywhere. They are in the classroom, at school board meetings, on the sports fields. You name it, and their presence is seen and felt.

As a result, the superintendent of schools and the Board of Education know exactly to whom they are accountable at the end of the day: the parents. The system works. Year after year, Wilton public schools maintain a high test score average, well-maintained facilities, successful sports programs and highly paid teachers.

Baltimore's school budget problems didn't materialize overnight. This has been a growing problem for which no one has been willing to take full responsibility. What's worse, it wasn't until CEO Bonnie S. Copeland threatened to lay off 1,000 to 1,200 teachers that the budget crisis really came to the forefront of public awareness. But even then, it was the teachers and the union who put up a fight, not the parents of the 25,000 to 30,000 children potentially without teachers or condemned to overcrowded classrooms.

Surely, there are thousands of loving, dedicated Baltimore parents involved daily with their children's education. Working on homework or volunteering in the classroom is important, but parental involvement can't end there. Without challenging administrators and school board members, without asking questions, the process of accountability fails.

City living can be exhilarating and enlivening, but it can also enable people to shirk their civic responsibility to participate. Families by their nature are a juggling act, and parents everywhere struggle daily to keep all the balls in the air.

Going above and beyond the daily tasks of a child's education and getting involved in the larger issues may seem daunting and unnecessary. But promises of accountability will come to fruition only if parents are present alongside the mayor, the school board and the teachers union questioning the conduct of the schools and demanding that they fulfill their obligation to the children.

Caroline Amport is studying public policy as a graduate student at the Johns Hopkins University.

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