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Education

Maryland school construction authority agrees to review analysis of ‘unfair’ funding for aging schools

The Maryland commission overseeing school construction says in the coming months it will review an analysis from Johns Hopkins University researchers, who contend the state’s funding formula is unfair to some low-income, Black and Hispanic students.

University researchers Thursday morning delivered an 11-page letter outlining their concerns to the Maryland State Department of Education and the Interagency Commission on School Construction, whose nine members are charged with establishing how much state and local governments will pay for school construction projects in each county.

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Students were dismissed early from Frederick Douglass HIgh School because of cold in January 2018. An analysis from Johns Hopkins University researchers contends the state’s funding formula for schools is unfair to some low-income, Black and Hispanic students.

The letter’s authors — Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, vice dean for public health practice and community engagement at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, and Dr. Richard Lofton, an assistant professor at the School of Education — asked the commission to look into the concerns ahead of the 2023 Maryland General Assembly in January when lawmakers resume funding discussions for the education reform plan called the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future.

The letter comes weeks after the authors and other public health, education and medical experts at Hopkins released a study comparing the condition of Baltimore City Public School facilities with those in other counties using data provided by the commission in spring 2022. The findings describe a startling gap between Baltimore City and the rest of the state.

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That study expanded on previous research published in 2020, which found Baltimore City students collectively missed nearly 1.5 million hours of class time over a five-year period — equal to about 221,000 school days — when their schools closed due to infrastructure problems. Some city schools close regularly during extreme temperatures due to a lack of heating or cooling.

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The letter states the current approach to determining funding priorities assigns too little weight to conditions that adversely affect students’ health and learning, such as inadequate heat and air conditioning systems, leaky roofs or environmental hazards. And it places too much weight on the need for additional space, based in part on student enrollment projections. That disproportionately impacts low-income, Black, and Hispanic students who go to school in aging facilities with major infrastructure problems.

Commission staffers declined an interview request Thursday, saying they needed more time to digest the analysis.

In a statement, acting executive director Alex Donahue said the work group that recommends funding priorities to the General Assembly has not yet completed its work.

“The IAC will spend the coming weeks and months carefully considering this analysis by Dr. Sharfstein and information provided by other stakeholders as we prepare to make recommendations to the [work group] when they next convene,” Donahue said.

Donahue added that the data is barred from use in any school construction funding decisions until the work group determines the final weightings.

The commission, an independent board whose nine members are appointed by the governor, lawmakers and other state officials, collected the data on the condition of K-12 school facilities across the state during the 2020-21 school year, a time when the COVID-19 pandemic moved instruction online for many students. The assessment aimed in part to measure the current physical condition of all public schools in the state and evaluate whether they meet the acceptable minimum levels for capacity and educational suitability.

The General Assembly approved the Built to Learn Act in 2020, which gives school systems statewide an additional $2.2 billion over five years for school construction.


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