An unfair burden


A STILL LARGELY unrecognized catastrophe has befallen Baltimore City schools. Fires and shootings are only symptoms. Underlying the widespread anger and frustration of students is the decimation of the city's teacher pool, caused by Maryland's vast and illegal underfunding.

Last year, when spending surpassed revenue enough to generate a cash-flow crisis, the city school board decided to cut spending rather than demand that the state contribute its court-mandated share of revenue. In a school system, cutting spending essentially means cutting expenses for staff.

The board dismissed everyone without a long-term contract and tried to insist on pay cuts or furloughs for teachers, threatening to lay them off, too, if they didn't comply. Because teachers refused to allow the budget to be balanced on their backs, Mayor Martin O'Malley stepped in with a conditional loan. The conditions included a financial recovery plan, which would necessitate reductions in staff through attrition or layoffs.

Teachers got the message loud and clear: Baltimore doesn't need you. The city would rather have fiscal discipline on a constitutionally inadequate revenue base than decently sized classes, experienced teachers, well-maintained facilities or a secure work force.

So teachers left -- many more than the system and the mayor intended. They fled, sensibly, to jurisdictions that could afford to pay them, that could give them job security, that would support them in the classroom with supplies, technology, aides, custodians and manageable class sizes.

Teachers and other staff left behind in Baltimore are consequently overwhelmed. The Sun reported in October that the city schools were 80 teachers short. But this is misleading. The number of unfilled positions, though tragic, is relatively small only because class sizes are huge; one high school teacher to 35 or 40 students is not uncommon. If class sizes in Baltimore were lowered to the staffing ratio of Howard County high schools (one teacher for 23.5 children), Baltimore would actually be more than 1,000 teachers short.

These catastrophic conditions were predicted years ago and could have been avoided if the state had complied with Circuit Court funding orders dating from June 2000. Regardless of the state's spin, mismanagement is not the principal cause of the school system's fiscal crisis.

The chief cause is $400 million to $800 million owed the city over the past four years. This figure is not an invention; it is from the court's binding order based on years of expert testimony in the student and parent lawsuit, Bradford vs. Maryland State Board of Education, an order reaffirmed in August after extensive additional hearings by Judge Joseph H. H. Kaplan.

The full amount of $800 million would have recruited more highly qualified teachers and administrators, induced more teachers and administrators to stay in the system, kept class sizes down, allowed students to learn more, kept more students on track toward graduation and funded music, arts, athletics, extracurricular activities and after-school programs that keep kids interested in school.

Judge Kaplan pointed out in his August ruling that had the state complied with the June 2000 order, "there would be no fiscal crisis in the city schools today."

Does the state say that this level of funding isn't needed? Not at all. Even Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. supports the Thornton legislation, which at a total of $1.3 billion over five years requires higher levels of spending than does the Circuit Court.

The state simply argues that for some unstated reason children in Baltimore don't merit adequate funding anytime soon. In fact, they don't merit adequacy until 2008 at best. In the meantime, they're supposed to make do with what they have, regardless of how unjust.

The harm done by decimating the city's teacher pool will probably take years to repair, even if the General Assembly funds Thornton fully by 2008. If state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick truly cares about Baltimore's children, she will ask Governor Ehrlich to accelerate Thornton funding, as Judge Kaplan ordered, and request at least $100 million in an immediate deficiency appropriation from the General Assembly to help mitigate the current education disaster.

The money could come from the hundreds of millions of dollars currently budgeted as supplemental school funding for Maryland's wealthiest counties, counties that have benefited from Baltimore's crisis by absorbing some of the best of the former city teachers.

This emergency appropriation would do three things:

Provide cash for essential purposes, including an immediate raise for teachers, paraprofessionals and custodial workers, to try to prevent a further exodus.

Demonstrate a commitment to teachers that could be used as a recruiting tool in the early spring when most good teachers are accepting offers for next year.

Indicate a willingness to fully fund the city schools so that city teachers -- new and old -- can begin to have some confidence their jobs won't suddenly disappear.

A sum of $110 million -- the supplemental amount received collectively by the eight richest counties in Maryland through the Thornton plan -- would be less than half the annual, court-mandated supplement owed to the city by the state and one-eighth of what children have been denied since 2000. But it might be a gesture large enough to stem the catastrophic bleeding of teachers currently taking place. Anything less is an insult and a crime against children.

Jay Gillen, a teacher in Baltimore city schools for 16 years, facilitates the Baltimore Algebra Project. His children are enrolled in and are graduates of the city schools.

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