Robbed of a future voice

December 12, 2007|By Jay Gillen

It's no accident that the largest "savings" achieved by Gov. Martin O'Malley and the General Assembly in last month's special session involved repeal and re-enactment of the 2002 Thornton legislation on school funding. At least $300 million was stripped from Thornton, a savings that mainly hurts poor families. Those families, however, tend not to vote, so some might suggest it's the poor themselves, not the politicians, who are to blame.

Robert P. Moses, a crucial figure in the civil rights movement and founder of the national Algebra Project, was recently in Baltimore helping to clarify this problem. He describes the right to an education as "subtext" for the right to vote. In 1963, for example, a federal judge in Mississippi blamed poor black people for their lack of education and asked Mr. Moses and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, "Why are you taking illiterate sharecroppers to register to vote?" The students answered that elected officials shouldn't be allowed to deny education to a group of people, then turn around and deny them the vote because they are uneducated. Mr. Moses points out that the same dynamic is at work today - just a shade more subtly.

Under the Maryland Constitution, all children have the right to an education, because well-informed voters are the bedrock of democracy. Governor O'Malley, Mayor Sheila Dixon and the courts all agree that Baltimore's children have been deprived of this right for decades.

Who deprived them? The mayors, governors and legislatures. What's the remedy? According to the state Court of Appeals, courts cannot force the other branches of government to appropriate money; only replacing those recalcitrant elected officials will help. But instead of being voted out, they often get elected to even higher office. Why? Because so few of Baltimore's citizens turn up at the polls. Why so few? Because education is the bedrock of democracy, and poorly educated people tend not to vote.

Mayor Dixon was recently elected by about 8 percent of Baltimore's adult population: 36,726 votes out of an adult population of 475,000. Martin O'Malley won the mayoral election in 1999 with about 13 percent of the adult population's approval.

Governor O'Malley and the General Assembly know that many things would be different if Baltimore's citizens used their electoral power. For example, the budget wouldn't be balanced by cutting $300 million targeted mostly for the poor.

Or consider the state and federal governments' decision to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in base realignment and closure. BRAC is an intensely political arrangement, arrived at by a process in which Baltimore's nonvoting residents were largely irrelevant. The Depression-level unemployment among the city's African-Americans won't be alleviated by new jobs that require high school diplomas or college degrees, because so many of Baltimore's citizens never received the education they deserved. Instead, BRAC will mostly draw new residents from out of state into jurisdictions that are already at or near full employment. The new voters in those jurisdictions will vote for politicians who promise increased funding for schools there, not in Baltimore. Our city schools will still be underfunded, and most of the next generation of Baltimore's adults still won't vote.

Who gets access to quality education - and to the political power education generates - is the subtext for many of our major policy decisions. Southern racists hypocritically blamed sharecroppers' illiteracy for their disenfranchisement. But here in Maryland, decades of underfunded schools and de facto segregation have resulted in a sham democracy where politicians cynically blame the poor for not being savvy enough to protect their own interests.

A "liberal" politician who promises to create jobs or reduce crime while tolerating cuts to education is a politician who likely benefits from the state's failure to educate the descendants of sharecroppers and from the lack of political involvement that correlates with lack of education. If Baltimore's children were truly well-educated, they would grow up to vote education-cutting politicians into retirement. Schools for poor children of color would be the best-funded.

When the General Assembly reconvenes in January, the citizens of Baltimore should make education the text, not the subtext, and hold Governor O'Malley accountable for his pre-election promises to fully fund city schools.

Jay Gillen is a Baltimore public school teacher with the Algebra Project, which employs 150 students after school teaching mathematics. His e-mail is jgillen@stadiumschool.com.

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