Improve Baltimore schools to attract families

Parents of any income level shouldn't have to gamble their child's education on Baltimore schools.

As a newly arrived transplant to the Baltimore region, my last several months have been filled with plentiful advice on parks to explore, museums to visit and restaurants to dine in. While it turns out everyone knows of a different "best" place to find crab cakes, one of the most consistent pieces of advice I have received pertains to housing and schools. When I reveal that I am a new father, I am almost uniformly met with the same advice: "Don't bother looking in Baltimore City. You can't send your child to school there."

The truth is, however, that this advice is wrong. People can and do send their children to Baltimore City Public Schools. Just ask the parents of the over 80,000 children currently attending a school in the system. What those giving me advice really mean is that I shouldn't choose to send my child to the city schools, and, as a white relatively affluent professional, that's a choice I am able to make. I can move to adjacent counties and take advantage of some of the best schools in the country. I can live in the city and send my children to private schools. In virtue of my privilege, I can make these choices and quite easily forget that the reality for many parents is no choice; due to poverty and housing availability, they must send their child to a city school.

This month saw the release of several national education assessments that paint a less than optimistic picture of the state of education in Maryland. These results shake us and make headlines because they question our state's prominence as a high performer in education. The reality, however, is that for many of the state's residents, particularly those in Baltimore, questioning the educational system's success is nothing new. Changes in the state's average performance mean little for those trapped in consistently underperforming schools.

In a recent opinion piece in the Baltimore Sun, Maggie Master argues for white, affluent parents to "opt-in" to the public schools in Baltimore. She notes the need for a public reckoning in which parents of greater means recognize that by opting-out of the public city system, they are tacitly endorsing the position that sub-par educational conditions are acceptable for children from disadvantaged backgrounds while not acceptable for those from greater means.

My experience, however, is that many parents who move to the suburbs or pursue the private school option already recognize the inequities of the system. Many of them detest the separate and unequal state of schooling, but they nevertheless make the decision to provide their child with the best quality education available. What's more is that this behavior is entirely rational. We each want what is best for our children, and it is difficult to blame those with means for pursuing schools that systematically have better resources, better teachers and higher-achieving peers.

Both the affluent and less affluent operate within a broken educational system, and it is this system that must be remedied. Segregation in housing and schooling is the product of decades of public policy, and relying on individuals to voluntarily reverse these trends is unlikely to prove successful. We need policies that link the fates of children in the suburbs to those in the city. We need policies that provide incentives and structures so that remaining in the public city schools is attractive even for those with the ability to go elsewhere.

The recent attention to the state's performance on educational assessments is an opportunity to recognize that we require a concerted effort by not just parents but state policymakers, local district leaders, and the general populace. Educational success cannot only be defined by the success of a few or success on average, but must also include opportunity and success for all children, regardless of the ZIP code into which they are born. Maryland has an opportunity to work for educational progress defined not by county and school district borders but by a shared vision for equitable opportunities for all of the state's children, particularly those most historically disadvantaged. It's time to create a public school system that parents can't imagine not attending.

F. Chris Curran is an assistant professor in UMBC's School of Public Policy. His email is curranfc@umbc.edu.

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