A Generous Gift

Our View: The Meyerhoff Family Foundation Wants To Encourage Middle-class Families To Live In The City

The Best Way To Do That Is To Support The Public Schools

July 01, 2009

For three generations, Baltimore's Meyerhoff family has enriched the cultural and civic life of this city through innumerable philanthropic gifts to its schools, hospitals, museums, parks, libraries and the magnificent symphony orchestra hall that bears its name. But now, as leadership passes to a new generation, the family has set itself an even more ambitious goal: to help Baltimore's beleaguered middle class by encouraging more such families to move to the city and stay here. The effort, if successful, could be the Meyerhoffs' greatest legacy and one that would go a long way toward reversing Baltimore's long-standing ills.

Unfortunately, the ideas the foundation has announced so far - increasing the availability of computers in public libraries, sprucing up parks, even providing college tuition help for middle-income families, for example - may not by themselves be enough to address the core reasons why the middle class has for generations fled to the suburbs. There's only so much any private organization can do, after all, about such problems as crime and high taxes, which are often cited as two of the most important disincentives for city living.

But if the foundation were to focus on one thing that surely would make city living more attractive to families who have a choice of where to live, it would be to improve the public schools. There's already significant momentum for education reform under schools chief Andr?s Alonso, and the foundation could accelerate the pace by focusing its efforts on helping to sponsor innovative new programs there. That truly would be a gift that keeps on giving.

In order for that to happen, however, the school department and city government would have to reciprocate with a concerted effort to begin removing the kind of bureaucratic barriers that make it difficult for private foundations to have a significant impact on public institutions like schools. In many ways, government agencies simply aren't set up to take maximum advantage of the kind of public-private partnerships needed to attract middle-class families back to the city.

The Meyerhoff foundation, for example, has been extremely generous in its support of cultural institutions like the Baltimore Museum of Art, the National Aquarium and the Maryland Science Center. Yet city public schools still make relatively little use of these first-rate facilities, which together could greatly enrich students' educational experience. The school department should make it a priority for every city student to visit at least one of these institutions every year.

Similarly, school officials should make it easy for foundations like the Meyerhoff to help defray the costs of bringing more Teach for America teachers into the city's schools in order to fulfill Mr. Alonso's pledge to put a great teacher in every classroom. Mr. Alonso is still about $300,000 short in his fundraising effort to increase the number of Teach for America instructors in Baltimore to 150. Under Mr. Alonso's leadership, the schools are committed to making rapid, measurable improvements, and that's something the foundation's leaders also want to see. Surely the public and private sectors can find better ways to cooperate that would allow them to make it happen together.

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