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ACLU school funding lawsuit isn't a 'threat,' it's a reminder that Maryland is violating its own constitution

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller bristled at the news last week that the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland is seeking to reopen a decades-old lawsuit over the adequacy of state funding for Baltimore City Schools. “We don’t respond well to threats,” he huffed from the dais in the Senate chamber. He went on to suggest he did not much appreciate the thousands of teachers and other supporters who plan to gather on Lawyers Mall outside the State House tonight to demand adequate funding for schools. “We’re not going to be responding to lawsuits or mass rallies,” he said.

Mr. Miller is certainly free to find bothersome the right of the citizens to peacefully assemble and petition the government for redress of their grievances, but he and the other powers-that-be in state government would do well to take the ACLU legal action seriously. It isn’t a threat so much as it is a reminder that the state, by its own figures and reports, has never fulfilled what is required of it under a 25-year-old lawsuit related to city schools funding. Fifteen years ago, the Baltimore Circuit Court declared that it retained jurisdiction to ensure the state was complying with its requirement under the Maryland constitution to provide a “thorough and efficient” education for Baltimore’s schoolchildren. That still applies.

By the state’s own calculations, it was shortchanging Baltimore City schools by $290 million to $358 million per year by fiscal 2015, and nothing has changed since then. To those who marvel at how that can be, considering that Maryland provides Baltimore City the second-most aid per pupil of any jurisdiction in the state (we’re looking at you, Gov. Larry Hogan), the answer is that Baltimore’s needs simply are far greater than those of any other school district. Baltimore has nearly as many students attending schools of extremely concentrated poverty (greater than 80 percent eligibility for free and reduced-price meals) as the rest of the state combined. It has to spend far more on services for students with disabilities and special education students than the state average, and it has a burgeoning population of English language learners.

Despite those challenges, Baltimore has a higher student-teacher ratio than nearly any district in the state, and no, the problem isn’t administrative bloat. As of 2017, it tied with Queen Anne’s County for the lowest rate of non-instructional personnel. Meanwhile, Baltimore’s teachers have, on average, less experience and fewer professional qualifications than those working elsewhere in Maryland. And that’s not even getting into the question of whether the school’s roof leaks or its heat works or its water is potable. Welcome as it is, the $1 billion school construction and renovation program the state, city and school system came together to adopt during the O’Malley administration won’t even cover half the need.

We appreciate Senator Miller’s point that the General Assembly is moving ahead this year with preliminary implementation of the Kirwan Commission recommendations for reforming the funding and operations of Maryland schools, even as it waits for a final proposal for dividing the costs between the state and local governments. The House has made changes to Governor Hogan’s fiscal 2020 budget proposal that would provide the approximately $320 million in extra education funds Kirwan calls for in its initial stage to begin expanding early childhood education and other measures, and Mr. Miller joined House Speaker Michael E. Busch in calling for an additional $700 million in fiscal 2021. Given Governor Hogan’s less-than-enthusiastic embrace of Kirwan, both chambers need to pass legislation this year mandating that amount. That’s the only way for the legislature to demonstrate a good-faith effort to begin addressing Maryland’s very real funding inadequacies.

But even if the General Assembly does that and Governor Hogan signs the legislation, the ACLU’s legal action remains vital. It underscores the reality that the deficiencies Kirwan seeks to address aren’t uniformly distributed throughout the state. Baltimore City’s schools are the heart of the inadequacy argument in Maryland, and remedying that isn’t optional. Reopening the lawsuit over city schools funding isn’t a threat, it’s a reminder of the state’s obligations and the reality that if the legislature and governor only have so much time to find a solution to the problem before a judge finds one for them.

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