Race, politics and the schools

Q&A//Marion Orr

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May 28, 2006|By MICHAEL HILL | MICHAEL HILL,SUN REPORTER

Marion Orr has been casting an analytical eye on Baltimore schools for decades. And he finds decisions made decades ago resonating in the current controversies embroiling the system as the city and state fight for control.

Orr's 1999 book, Black Social Capital: The Politics of School Reform in Baltimore, draws on data gathered as part of an 11-city study of urban school reform. Based on research conducted in the middle 1990s, the book builds on the dissertation Orr completed at the University of Maryland, College Park, where he received his Ph.D. in 1992.

"The book looks at the role of race and class and politics in the Baltimore public school system," says Orr, a political science professor at Brown University.

Though the book examines in detail the years when William Donald Schaefer, Clarence H. Du Burns and Kurt Schmoke were the city's mayors, it goes back over a century to show how well-established patterns of governing the city played out in the politics of the late 20th century.

"Baltimore is a fascinating place to study," Orr says. "And among political scientists, it is an under-studied city. Urban political scientists have done a lot of work on Chicago, Detroit, Atlanta, New York and a few other cities. There are only a small number of books devoted to Baltimore."

What is the thesis of your book about the Baltimore school system?

The book, while showing that deindustrialization, white flight and inner-city poverty make school reform difficult in Baltimore, reveals the struggles of civic leaders and the limitation placed on the city's black community as each tried to rescue what became a failing school system.

One of the things I argue is that, in the late 1960s into the early 1970s, politicians in Baltimore City made a political decision about control over the public school system. The civic and political leaders decided that the black community in Baltimore would have administrative control over the public school system.

If you look at big-city politics, this is not all that unusual. Certain ethnic and racial groups in certain cities run various departments, whether it's the school system, police, transportation and the like.

The other point I make in the book is that there is a tradition of patronage machine politics that exists in the city of Baltimore. It goes back many years, in fact to shortly after the Civil War. And that tradition of patronage is very much a part of the public school system. African-Americans in Baltimore politics were schooled, if you will, in the patronage way of politics, and once they got control over the public schools, they continued to act in that tradition. But you have always had patronage in the public school system.

So the book takes a really broad sweep. You cannot take a snapshot of what's happening in Baltimore today without bringing in some historical context. So the book largely looks at the Schaefer and Schmoke years, but it also brings in things, particularly about the tradition of patronage, that go back many decades.

In short, the book illustrates that urban school reform is a delicate political challenge.

What was the result of this decision to give the black community control over the schools?

Part of what happened is that African-Americans got control over the system at a time of difficult fiscal circumstances. It was really an inopportune time to get that control. The economy in Baltimore was changing. Middle-class whites and, in many cases, middle-class blacks were leaving the city. Manufacturing jobs were leaving. So blacks got control of a cash-strapped system. That created a lot of challenges for city leaders trying to run public schools.

What that meant was that to address the needs of the schools, city leaders had to reach out beyond the city's boundaries for support; that is to say, the public power in Maryland during this period was shifting away from Baltimore City to the surrounding suburban areas. Since school systems are ultimately controlled by the state, this required city politicians and legislators to build alliances with suburban legislators.

Didn't race complicate the situation?

There's no question about it. The racial situation has always been a part of Maryland politics. When what you have is a largely African-American city with a largely disadvantaged population that really now needs some support from people who are leaving the city for various and sundry reasons, the racial issue becomes very complicated. In part it is a class issue.

It is very important to look at this in context. This political decision that was made, this tacit agreement, if you will, between white city leaders and the black community, came in the late '60s and early '70s, when blacks were flexing their muscles around the country, wanting to have more authority in city government. Part of the civil rights movement was addressing African-Americans' concerns about not having a voice in civic affairs.

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