Baltimore has the potential to again be the state's greatest economic engine. Investments in education, in particular, have the power to convert a tsunami of need into a rising tide of productivity. And the Maryland General Assembly has the opportunity to leverage newly proposed legislative options to steer the course to a more prosperous future.
House and Senate committees recently heard arguments for an innovative bond financing mechanism to jump-start much-needed repairs and upgrades in city schools. In addition, MayorStephanie Rawlings-Blakehas proposed new local revenues to substantially increase the rate of school rebuilding in the city. Although the former proposal has raised concerns among state policymakers about the state's bond status, and the latter proposal still has political hurdles, it's been proven that student academic performance suffers when students lack basic amenities such as reliable plumbing, heating and cooling systems and structurally safe and sound buildings. With an estimated $2.8 billion in capital needs for city schools, the current incremental financing structures simply won't work.
Economic, business and education leaders agree that the potential returns of a transformative approach to school funding are necessary, possible and sustainable. Students and their families are flocking to schools that boast programmatic and physical improvements. Thousands are vying for limited slots in lotteries as Baltimore has increased its number of "choice" schools from fewer than 10 to more than 50 in the last decade.
These improvements can scale that growth. Still, too many other schools languish. We urge the legislature, at the very least, to move forward with policy directives to have the State Department of Education review and pursue more innovative school financing mechanisms, including the creation of incentives for more public-private partnerships.
But better schools will be of little use to Baltimore students unless they arrive in those buildings ready to learn. Two pieces of legislation will be presented in House and Senate committees this week focusing on access to pre-kindergarten for all Maryland 4-year-olds. Baltimore already benefits from major improvements in school readiness, growing from 26 percent in 2002 to 67 percent in 2010. With thoughtful and deliberate planning, that number should grow to 85 percent in 2017, when children born in 2012 enter kindergarten. This legislation can play a vital role in realizing that goal.
The three organizations we represent — PNC Bank, the Johns Hopkins University and the Baltimore Community Foundation — have, along with countless other businesses, institutions and philanthropies, made strategic investments in Baltimore's greatest areas of need, including early childhood education.
PNC's "Grow Up Great" initiative focuses on helping to ensure that children, especially those from low- to moderate income communities, arrive at school ready to learn. Johns Hopkins is a principal partner in building the first new public school in East Baltimore in decades. The project, which includes an early childhood center, will be operated by Hopkins in partnership with Morgan State University and will not draw on the school district's scarce capital resources. The Baltimore Community Foundation, which has long invested in educational and other opportunities for young people, is focusing its resources on three key ingredients of school improvement: school readiness, schools that work, and leadership, defined as great principals, strong teachers, and involved parents and community members.
Investing in education at any level has proven to deliver a solid economic return. A growing body of economic research has shown that for every $1 invested in early childhood education, society saves as much as $16, offsetting the cost of remedial education, teen pregnancies, juvenile delinquency and incarceration. Children who arrive at school ready to learn and are provided with a strong support system throughout their academic careers are more likely to graduate high school, go on to college, secure stable employment and contribute to the economy and help stabilize families and neighborhoods.
We call on the state legislature to take the next step with us, by supporting innovative financing for our schools' capital needs and by guaranteeing pre-K for all Maryland children. Investments in Baltimore — by businesses, by institutions, by the state — redound to the benefit of all.
Louis R. Cestello is Maryland president of PNC Bank and chairman of Ready at Five. Ronald J. Daniels is president of the Johns Hopkins University. Thomas E. Wilcox is president of the Baltimore Community Foundation; his email is firstname.lastname@example.org. All three are trustees of the Baltimore Community Foundation.