In a case that could have far-reaching consequences for public schools across Maryland, two civil rights organizations went to court Thursday to reopen a landmark case they hope will force the state to provide hundreds of millions more dollars for the Baltimore school system.
The ACLU of Maryland and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund argue that the state is not living up to its obligation — spelled out in a consent decree two decades ago — to provide enough funding for city schools. They say the state should be spending $200 million to $300 million more each year to rebuild deteriorating buildings and provide a better education. If they were to succeed, Maryland would face pressure to spend far more on schools throughout the state as well.
“We want to make sure the current and next generation of black and brown kids in city schools are able to fully realize their dreams and not be held back because the state of Maryland didn’t provide the resources for them to succeed,” said Dana Vickers Shelley, executive director of the ACLU of Maryland. Children in Baltimore, she said, can’t wait an additional two decades.
After rulings in the 1994 Bradford v. of Maryland State Board of Education case, the state and city entered into a consent decree. It provided more funding for the city schools and revamped the governance of the school system.
The case helped prompt a 2002 law that has sent billions of state dollars to schools across Maryland under what is now known as the “Thornton formula.”
The civil rights groups argue that since 2008, Maryland stopped adjusting the formula for inflation and allowed funding for Baltimore to fall far below the level required to provide an adequate education.
The actions of the two organizations come at a time when Maryland’s Kirwan Commission has recommended the state and local governments provide an additional $3.8 billion annually to schools by 2030. Action on those recommendations is not expected until next year.
Ajmel Quereshi, senior counsel for the Legal Defense Fund, said the Kirwan Commission has been slow to finish its work, and it is not clear whether the recommendations will be adopted by the General Assembly and Gov. Larry Hogan.
“The sad reality is that things have not improved significantly,” Quereshi said. “We have been very patient.” He said the organizations hope to get immediate relief for city schools in the budget year, which begins in July.
Maryland Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller on Friday blasted the lawsuit. He pointed to the recently introduced legislation, saying the legal action was unnecessary.
“We don’t respond well to threats,” Miller said from the dais in the Senate chamber. “People want to litigate our school construction. That’s insane. … People want to tie us up in courts. They think Kirwan hasn’t moved fast enough. We just got the report last week. We haven’t gotten the counties to buy into it. We’ve moving as fast we possibly can.”
Miller said funding the Kirwan commission recommendations is his and House Speaker Michael Busch’s top priority.
“These foolish litigators can proceed with what they want to do. But we’re going to move on our own speed. … People can file suit all they want. We’re not going to be responding to lawsuits or mass rallies.”
A large rally for increased school funding is scheduled for Annapolis on Monday evening.
A city schools spokeswoman, Anne Fullerton, said it supports the group's legal action, especially in light of continued delays in Annapolis on implementing the Kirwan Commission's recommendations. "Baltimore's children have already waited too long for the education funding they deserve and that is promised to them and to all children in Maryland by state law," Fullerton said. The district is not a party in the lawsuit.
Vickers Shelley said this week’s legislation is a positive step, but that the funding formula still shortchanges Baltimore kids and those coming from poor families. “It’s not enough,” she said. “We need to make sure that what our state’s constitution requires is what’s fulfilled.”
In the Bradford case, the judge found that the state violated the constitution by failing to provide a “thorough and efficient” public school education to the city’s children. The judge’s ruling had consequences for other school districts in the state, as the legislature voted to give all jurisdictions a boost in funding.
Some education advocates have suggested that state leaders would be more likely to pass the Kirwan recommendations if they feared judicial action might take the matter out of their hands. Courts have ordered states to take action in other education cases around the country.
Busch declined to comment, on the advice of the attorney general. A spokesman for the Maryland State Department of Education also declined to comment.
Parents of students currently attending city schools have joined the lawsuit.
Deshawna Bryant, a 17-year-old Baltimore City College student, said chronic underfunding of the city’s public schools sends the message that she and her friends are “undervalued.”
Last winter, school heating systems failed across the city. Images of children huddled in their parkas went viral and drew a national spotlight to the city’s dilapidated buildings. The conditions at the prestigious City College were no different.
Deshawna has sickle cell anemia, so the cold represented a major health risk. Sitting in frigid classrooms for seven hours — even with her winter coat zipped up tight — sent her into a “crisis.” She was hospitalized and ended up missing two weeks of school.
“I’m hoping that people will realize that they shouldn’t allow students to go into building knowing they won’t get the best learning experience possible,” she said.