Baltimore Sun

Ehrlich realizes we all have a stake in the city's schools

MORE HIGH-FIVES to Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. of Arbutus for his leadership in Baltimore's school crisis. Last week, the governor pledged a $42 million loan to help the school system pay its bills, and this week, with the deficit numbers looking even worse, Ehrlich came closer to advocating a complete state takeover of the system, declaring himself its new guardian with these words: "I have 90,000 children in Baltimore City schools."

Say what you will about Bobby Slots, but he's no deadbeat dad.

Some might find it wholly remarkable that a Republican from the suburbs, who garnered little support in the 2002 gubernatorial election from the city families who will benefit from this intervention, would take the lead here. But, of course, Ehrlich doesn't have much choice. Only the state can pay child support on this scale.

More significantly, whether he knows it or not, Ehrlich is stepping into an area of public leadership that has been empty in Maryland for decades. He's not only declaring a responsibility on the part of the nation's fourth-wealthiest state for its poorest children. But at a time of crisis, he's thinking holistically - like, almost lotus position kind of stuff - and embracing true regionalism, telling his suburban and rural constituency, otherwise averse to more city assistance, that a stable and effective Baltimore public school system eventually will lift the quality of life in the entire state.

"His actions mean that Ehrlich realizes the state is the only source of funds for paying the costs of the city schools," says Howell Baum, a University of Maryland professor in urban studies. "But more importantly, it means he appreciates the immense costs of not paying for them. It means he sees this as an investment."

An article by Baum in the winter issue of the Journal of the American Planning Association tracks the consequences of failing schools far beyond the borders of the city and argues that suburban taxpayers have a stake in the improvement of urban public education. Failing schools and racial segregation contribute to suburban sprawl, which contributes to crowded suburban schools, congested highways, air pollution and the loss of open space.

If you care about those things - and increasing numbers of suburbanites do as their commutes become longer, their roadways become more crowded and their kids attend classes in trailers - then you should care about the city schools as well, says Baum.

Not even the Smart Growth movement has made this connection, he says. Nor have Smart Growth thinkers addressed a related issue - racial segregation.

"As middle-class, largely white families have moved to the suburbs, they have contributed to residential segregation, school segregation, impoverishment of the city, deterioration of public services, and reduced participation in and competence for governance and civic affairs," Baum writes. "These urban problems are intrinsic to sprawl, but they are not on the Smart Growth agenda."

They should be. They should be on all agendas, because they relate to almost every aspect of life in this region. Specifically, and easily, you can link inadequate education of city children to violent crime, drug addiction, the rate of incarceration in Maryland, unemployment and underemployment, family dysfunction, child abuse. Baum is adding suburban sprawl to the list.

"The withdrawal of white students from schools with black children was one of the concurrent changes affecting black children's education," Baum writes. "The decline of urban industry deprived African-American men of employment, making them less able to support families and less likely to marry."

Baum notes the significant rise in black female-headed households in recent decades. "These family changes deprived children of economic and social supports, proximate examples of economic success, and connections to the labor market and larger society. Parents had a harder time showing their children that schooling paid off and giving them the support to succeed academically.

"Failing city schools deny children the opportunity to grow into competent adults," he writes. "Often these are [majority] black schools, which are not preparing the next generation of black adults. ... Centrally, weak city schools are an engine of sprawl. When city residents leave school without work skills, the regional economy is diminished by the productivity they will not contribute. These adults will try to support themselves in ways that run up taxes for public programs. Higher city taxes push more people out, and higher state and federal taxes increases the costs of suburban living."

Baum, of course, doesn't have a magic potion to put in the metropolitan water supply to make segregation and what Ehrlich called "pre-existing antagonisms" between city and suburbs go away. But, he says, until the twin problems of failing schools and racial segregation are addressed, almost all of the related problems, in city as well as suburb, won't go away.

"Improving city schools is central to managing sprawl," Baum writes, "and the collaboration required for doing so will build regional capacity for dealing with other metropolitan problems."

Whether he knows it or not, Ehrlich is setting this agenda. It's about time someone did.