Calling education the next step in the civil rights movement, hundreds of Baltimore students are planning to take to the streets today to demand a $1 billion commitment to the city schools from the gubernatorial candidates.
Students are calling their campaign "Freedom Fall 2006," modeled after Freedom Summer 1964, when thousands of civil rights activists descended on Mississippi to assert the right of disenfranchised blacks to vote.
The protest is being led by the Baltimore Algebra Project, a student tutoring and advocacy group. Members are drawing on rulings from a school funding lawsuit to assert that the state owes the city's students $1 billion. They want the winner of next month's gubernatorial election, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. or Mayor Martin O'Malley, to commit to providing that funding.
Among the chronic problems in city schools that the students point to: large class sizes; old books; and buildings that are falling apart.
The Algebra Project grew out of an organization founded by Robert Moses, leader of Freedom Summer. Moses believes that the right to a quality education has replaced the right to vote as the civil rights issue of modern times. In particular, he argues that black students must have access to algebra at a young age; otherwise, they will automatically be denied access to the economic and political power that comes with attending a top-tier university.
During Freedom Summer, protesters convened the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, demonstrating their belief that the regular Democratic Party was not representing the interests of African-American voters. Though blacks officially had the right to vote since 1870, they were often unable to exercise it.
Beginning at 2 p.m. today, city students and their adult supporters will convene at Green Mount Cemetery, where they will chant the Algebra Project's slogan, "No education, no life." From there, they will march along North Avenue to St. Paul Street, where they will convene the "Maryland Freedom Board of Education" inside the Seventh Baptist Church. They believe that the state school board is not giving them the money they feel they deserve.
Groups supporting the students' position include Baltimore Education Advocates and the Baltimore chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, co-sponsors of the protest.
Students say about 500 people have registered for the event. Chris Goodman, 18, who graduated in the spring from City College and plans to start at University of Maryland in the winter, spent the past few weeks visiting schools to solicit support. Students have been asking their teachers for class time to discuss the funding needs of their schools.
The protest is one in a series convened by Algebra Project students in recent years.
Now, the students are trying to bring attention to their cause in the context of the governor's race. The quality of the city's schools has been a major topic in the campaign, but the students say they feel they are being used for political purposes.
Yellow fliers advertising today's protest show Ehrlich and O'Malley on opposite sides of a chess board, with miniature students as the pieces standing on the black and white squares.
"We aren't pawns, we aren't slaves in the Ehrlich/O'Malley game!!" the fliers say.
The students invited all the gubernatorial candidates to attend the protest. Ed Boyd, the Green Party candidate, plans to attend. Meanwhile, Ehrlich and O'Malley will be taping a televised debate.
O'Malley spokesman Rick Abbruzzese said that, if elected, the mayor is prepared to fully fund the state's so-called Thornton legislation, which provides millions of dollars to schools statewide, and to increase funding for school construction in the state.
Shareese N. DeLeaver, an Ehrlich spokeswoman, said the governor made a major investment in education during his first term: She said Ehrlich increased the state's investment in city schools by 29 percent, or $176 million, and increased overall spending on public schools by 43 percent, to $4.5 billion this year.
"The governor doesn't consider education a campaign issue," she said.