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Is Baltimore's per-pupil spending really the 'fourth highest' in the nation?

The amount of money that the Baltimore public school system spends per student took center stage recently, when a debate moderator asked a field of Democratic candidates for governor what they thought was the biggest barrier facing struggling city schools, given that the district “spends the fourth-most per student in America.”

Gov. Larry Hogan’s office had referenced the same statistic several times this past winter, during political finger-pointing that came after broken heating systems left many Baltimore students shivering in their classrooms.

The figure, however, isn’t quite true.

It comes from a U.S. Census Bureau report on public education finance in 2015. But the report only ranked the nation’s 100 largest school districts.

That distinction matters, city education advocates say.

“The statement that Baltimore’s per-pupil spending is the fourth highest in the nation is misleading and fails to provide substantive context for the ranking,” city schools spokeswoman Edie House-Foster wrote in a statement. “There are more than 13,000 school districts in the nation; Baltimore ranks at about 2,400 in per-pupil spending in the overall group.”

Some have been critical of the governor’s office for using the figure multiple times and question the way it has been “weaponized” in political circles.

“It seems to be thrown around with the intent of shaming Baltimore City Public Schools,” said Jess Gartner, CEO of Baltimore-based Allovue, which works with school districts on education finance strategy. “What are the implications and dog whistles associated with that?”

School board chair Cheryl Casciani said “it’s been frustrating having an incorrect fact repeated over and over.”

It’s important to note that the statistic only applies to the 100 largest districts, she said, because many other urban areas also struggle with the chronic underfunding of their schools.

A Hogan spokeswoman said the Census report the governor’s statements draw from provides an “apples to apples” comparison of comparable school districts. She added that his administration provided more than $47 million in funding above the formulas for Baltimore schools since taking office.

“The history of fiscal mismanagement at North Avenue is well documented,” Amelia Chasse said in a statement, “and our administration continues to be committed to ensuring that funds are spent in the classroom where they belong.”

The Census Bureau last month published an updated breakdown of school districts’ per-pupil funding levels. At $15,168 per student, it showed Baltimore in fifth place among the 100 largest school systems — behind New York, Boston and both Howard and Montgomery counties — two wealthier Maryland suburbs.

Unlike those two Maryland districts, Baltimore serves a student population that’s majority African-American and from low-income families. Roughly 15 percent of city students also have special needs.

“Numbers do not mean anything out of context,” Gartner said.

House-Foster said the repeated claim about high per-pupil spending obscures the underlying issue: Baltimore schools aren’t adequately funded.

A December 2016 state analysis has found that Baltimore schools should have received $290 million more each year from the state under the current funding formula.

trichman@baltsun.com

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