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Investing in Baltimore's kids

Nearly 25 years ago, a group of advocates in San Francisco successfully petitioned an initiative onto the municipal ballot asking voters to approve a charter amendment requiring that a portion of the city's budget be dedicated to investments in youth, over and above what was already being funded. The political establishment wasn't initially keen on the idea, but voters found a "help the kids" campaign irresistible. (Getting children to haul the petitions to City Hall in red wagons probably didn't hurt.) Now it is a widely accepted part of the municipal fabric — the most recent re-authorization passed with 74 percent of the vote.

City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young is now proposing that Baltimore do more or less the same thing. He is calling for a charter amendment that would fence off 3 percent of Baltimore's budget — about $31 million — for investments in things like youth mentorship, after school programs, recreation and child care. And predictably, he is running into opposition from Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who seems never to have met a Jack Young proposal she didn't loathe. The Rawlings-Blake administration wasted no time in questioning its wisdom and suggesting that if he really wanted to help the city's youth, he would schedule a vote on the mayor's plan to sell some city-owned parking garages and use the proceeds to build recreation centers.

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The garages-for-rec centers idea is a good one, and it deserves a vote. But it's not at all a substitute for the kind of programmatic investments in youth that Mr. Young is talking about. Nor are the details of Mr. Young's proposal entirely the point. At a time when Baltimore has been forced to confront the fact that many of its residents feel disconnected, left out and without hope, he is at least suggesting a change in the way city government operates. At this juncture, we shouldn't be dismissing those sorts of ideas out of hand.

Mr. Young proposes that the city create a new board or commission that would assess the needs of the city's youth, establish priorities and funnel grants to service providers. It would set goals and analyze data to determine whether they are being met. As needs shift, so could the funding, but the principle is that Baltimore should be making a commitment to nurture and develop its youth in hopes, over time, of erasing some of the city's systemic economic and social divides.

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The mayor's objection is that it's bad policy to fence off a portion of the city's budget for any cause, no matter how worthwhile, because doing so will rob future executives of the discretion they need to meet whatever challenges may come. Moreover, the city perennially finds itself with more needs than resources, and Mr. Young has not identified what spending should be cut in order to make room for this initiative.

That's fair enough on both counts, though Mayor Rawlings-Blake has routinely managed to resolve fiscal problems of far greater magnitude. But more fundamentally, the mayor's willingness to treat Mr. Young's idea so dismissively betrays a failure to understand the urgency many feel in a post-Freddie Gray Baltimore to upend the status quo. Mr. Young's idea does that on substantive but particularly symbolic levels.

Ultimately, it may not be the right idea. Perhaps 3 percent for children's causes is too much (or perhaps too little). Perhaps enshrining that idea in the charter really isn't a good idea (though San Francisco has hardly fallen off a cliff, nor has Oakland, which did something similar in 1996, nor Miami, which followed several years later). Maybe it would be sufficient for the City Council to establish an oversight board for these sorts of investments through statute and pressure this and future mayors to fund it adequately. Maybe some other cause — job training for adults, transportation between the inner city and employment centers, re-entry services, addiction treatment or something else entirely — would have more impact. Mr. Young readily admits that his proposal may not be the answer.

But the point of the matter is that Baltimore could use that kind of debate. The city needs a conversation not just about policing tactics but about whether its government is doing what's necessary to help all Baltimore residents thrive. We expect we'll get that through the mayor's race, but it will be more than a year until we have new leadership in City Hall. We certainly hope Ms. Rawlings-Blake's intention in announcing that she won't run for re-election wasn't just to swat away other people's ideas for the last 15 months of her term.

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