Steele report ignores the racial divide in Md. schools

September 16, 2005|By MICHAEL OLESKER

COLLEGE PARK -- It's beautiful down here, if you can afford it. On a lovely sunlit morning, students at this University of Maryland campus walk to class as though barely staggered by the record-breaking tuition hikes of the Ehrlich years, and they live in dormitories whose fees have risen to resemble hotel bills. All of this makes it particularly striking to see banners strung proudly in numerous locations here.

The banners proclaim: "Graduates more African-American students than any other Top 20 public university."

This is beautiful to behold. As we live in a nation where the killer Hurricane Katrina has again reminded us of the two different economic worlds inhabited by blacks and whites, it's wonderful to see that great numbers of African-Americans are finding a home here despite some well-publicized cost increases of recent years.

It now costs $19,633 a year to attend school here. That's the price for in-state students. For those arriving from out of state, the cost is $31,957. Over the first two years of the Ehrlich administration, tuition here rose an astonishing 30 percent, and went up another 5.5 percent last year, as it did across the state's university system.

The reasons for this are simple: The public universities absorbed at least 25 percent of the dramatic state budget cuts instigated by this governor in his first two years in office. Maryland ranked a pathetic 41st in the nation in tax appropriations to public universities. And somebody has had to make up the difference.

"For a state that says it values higher education, the figures do seem contradictory," John Blair, the budget director for this campus, said yesterday. "I have two sons who go here myself. It's a lot of money for middle-class families, and for those who aren't middle class."

The latter would include, by every available measurement, a preponderance of black families, about whom the University of Maryland now boasts so proudly. So, what does it mean to declare more African-American graduates "than any other Top 20 public university"?

The figures relate to those graduating in the 2003-04 school year. On this vast campus of roughly 24,000 undergraduates, in which 5,646 graduated that year, here's how many were African-American:

Six hundred seventy-four.

The figure is worth noting in a week in which the lieutenant governor of Maryland, Michael S. Steele, steps forward to talk about the problems in Maryland's schools. For the past year, Steele headed a panel -- the Governor's Commission on Quality Education -- which looked into schools across the state and now issues a report about fixing their problems.

Not problems in the colleges -- problems that precede college. Problems where students are hoping to get into college. Or giving up hope of ever getting into college -- sometimes, for simple lack of money.

The report is interesting for what it says, and what it does not.

It says parental involvement in education should be encouraged. (It took them a year to figure this out?)

It says those who teach subjects such as math and science should be paid more than other teachers. (They think this will get past anybody who doesn't teach these subjects?)

But it delicately dances around some of the state's most profound (and prolonged) education issues: under-financed public school systems such as Baltimore's, continuing academic failures of African-American students -- and the continuing struggle of those black students whose grades are good enough for college, but haven't got the money to go.

Readers do not need another recitation of the economic disparities between America's blacks and whites. But maybe Michael Steele does.

His victory three years ago seemed to signal something important. It ended a whites-only history at the top of the state's political hierarchy. But it also carried a responsibility, and a historic opportunity: to speak important and often uncomfortable truths about the continuing racial divide -- in education, jobs, housing and paychecks.

It's nice that Steele spent the past year looking at Maryland's schools. It would be nicer if he'd taken time, over the past three years, to speak important truths about the ongoing troubles faced in the poorest school districts. And uncomfortable truths about black students who make grades but can't afford an education at places like College Park, where $19,633 a year is a distant dream without some kind of scholarship, or taking out huge loans, or spending too many hours at part-time jobs.

For that matter, a college education at such prices is a distant dream for plenty of poor and working-class white families.

But, 674 African-American graduates at College Park -- and it's No. 1?

Somewhere along the line, Michael Steele should have found this important enough to talk about. It's the reason a lot of people helped put him in office.

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