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Thornton's holding pattern for Baltimore schools

Perhaps the most that can be said of the $1.3 billion city budget Baltimore's school board approved this week is that system CEO Gregory Thornton at least managed to staunch the flow of red ink. Faced with a projected $108 million shortfall next year, Mr. Thornton eliminated funding increases for traditional public schools and also gave charter schools less than they expected; in addition he cut some summer programs and proposed laying off about 100 school department staff.

Mr. Thornton says the cuts are essential in order to eliminate redundancies in the system and make its instructional programs more sustainable while actually increasing the number of classroom instructors. But whether his first budget proposal since taking over the system last year will result in dramatic improvements remains unclear; in many ways his plan seems aimed more at preserving the status quo than at aggressively accelerating the momentum of reform.

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That's particularly evident in the controversy over charter school funding, which for years has lagged behind that of traditional public schools despite a state law that requires them to be funded equitably. The Coalition of Baltimore Charter Schools, which represents 34 schools in the city and about 13,000 students, calculates charter schools ought to receive slightly more than $10,000 per pupil to fund their operations. But they'll actually receive about $600 less than that in next year's budget, which could force them to lay off teachers, curtail programs and delay capital improvements to their facilities.

Baltimore has been more open to charter schools than any other jurisdiction in the state largely because they are seen as laboratories for new instructional models that can be tailored to students' needs and give parents more choices for the education of their children. In a city school system that ought to be seeking to maximize the potential for excellence for the greatest possible number of students, Mr. Thornton's budget priorities seem to throw cold water on the whole idea that the innovative approaches offered by charters fill an urgent need.

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The budget implications for the city's neighborhood schools also seem more geared toward standing in place rather than moving forward. While Mr. Thornton has introduced changes that will strengthen some of their programs — system-wide music and art classes for elementary school students, for example, or intramural sports for middle-schoolers — their overall funding remains essentially flat compared with last year despite ever rising costs.

That means principals, who rely on per-pupil funding to pay for everything from teachers and custodians to paper, pencils and chalk, will face difficult trade-offs when planning their school budgets. They may get a part-time art teacher or gym coach, but they must weigh those staff additions against the possible loss of a reading, language arts or math teacher.

Mr. Thornton's budget basically preserves as much of the gains the schools have made over the last seven years as possible and also offers a modest expansion of pre-K programs that improve students' odds for future academic success. Given the difficult fiscal situation Mr. Thornton inherited, that's no small achievement. But it's also insufficient. As appreciative as we are of former schools CEO Andrés Alonso's reform efforts, no one — probably Mr. Alonso included — would argue that he put the schools on a glide path to excellence. There are still major problems to solve, but Mr. Thornton's spending plan reveals little vision for how to do so. We don't expect school reform to happen overnight, but if it doesn't happen rapidly it might not happen at all.

Mr. Thornton and other school leaders are complaining — and rightly so — that Gov. Larry Hogan is sitting on funds that the legislature restricted for K-12 education in certain districts, including Baltimore. Today Mr. Hogan released another pot of money the legislature set aside, to pay for maintaining state workers' salaries at their present levels, but he has offered no word on whether he'll spend the money for schools, the city's share of which is $11.4 million. We urge him to release those funds while they can still make a difference for the principals and teachers who are planning for next year. But we also urge Mr. Thornton to make a stronger case for how that money — or any other infusion of funds — would advance the cause of school reform. Maintaining the status quo simply isn't good enough.

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