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Laura Lippman: 'Do the right thing' for Baltimore's children

My husband and I are both proud public school graduates. Yet we were resigned to enrolling our child in private school. By last fall, however, a decade of work by our energetic and community-minded neighbors gave us the option of enrolling our child in a school a 10-minute walk from our front door in Baltimore. She has classes in art, music and technology. But all of it is at risk if the governor and mayor don't close the education funding gap.

My husband, David Simon, and I make our livings using our imaginations. Yet when we set up house in South Baltimore in 2002, the one thing we could not imagine was that we would one day send our child to a Baltimore City public school.

The block where we bought a house in the early 21st century was like some more benign version of "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang's" Vulgaria, the country where children were outlawed by Baron and Baroness Bomburst. There was only one family with school-age kids, and we seldom saw them. They were picked up by buses from private schools in the morning, whisked to the north, returned at suppertime. And my husband's son was present only on weekends. He took great pride in being an urban kid, wise in the ways of street tag and the ordeal of finding a parking space. But there was no one his age to play with, only babies and toddlers.

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We saw the pattern again and again. Young couples moved in, had children, moved out when their children reached school-age.

Then something began to change. People with young children started moving in from other South Baltimore streets, leaving cramped rowhouses for the slightly more spacious rowhouses on our block. Our new neighbors believed that city living had unique advantages that went deeper than easy access to bars and restaurants. They had a vision of a community, one where children could run up and down the sidewalk while their parents "stooped." They turned a tiny vacant lot into a playground, open to all. They started a summer block party that has evolved into an all-day affair with live bands. Halloween, once a lackluster evening at best, became an open-air celebration, with trick-or-treaters coming from all over South Baltimore, Cherry Hill and Brooklyn.

And when the time came, and their children were ready for school, my neighbors went to work making the local schools — Federal Hill Prep, Francis Scott Key and Thomas Johnson — work for them. They volunteered. They raised money. They sold those infernal chocolate bars. My husband and I did nothing but sit back, buy chocolate bars and contribute items to the annual auctions. (You, too, could have your name appear in a Laura Lippman novel.)

My husband and I are both proud public school graduates. I spent grades one through nine in Baltimore City, leaving for reasons that had nothing to do with the quality of education I was receiving. (I was in Western High School's A-course; Columbia's Wilde Lake was far less rigorous.)

Yet, up until two years ago, we were resigned to enrolling our child in private school. By last fall, a decade of work by our energetic and community-minded neighbors gave us the option of sending our child to a school a 10-minute walk from our front door — and that's at a 6-year-old's rambling, distracted pace. Her first grade class has 21 students. She has classes in art, music and technology. Every kid at the school receives a free lunch, regardless of need, a compassionate decision that, along with uniforms, helps to mask socioeconomic inequities.

All of this — the manageable class size, the extracurriculars, free breakfast and lunch even for the neediest kids — are at risk if Gov. Larry Hogan and Mayor Catherine Pugh don't find a way to close the gap in the city school budget. But it's not just our school, our neighborhood or even Baltimore City that will suffer. It is all of Maryland. Families who can afford to leave Baltimore can afford to leave the state, too, in search of a place where the desire to live in an urban setting is rewarded.

Baltimore has been a punchline/punching bag for years — I've landed a few blows, to be fair — but those old jokes are out of touch. Our city, one of the most affordable in the Northeast, is hugely attractive to millennials. Once their lives and lifestyles are no longer a good fit for the high-rise rentals going up around the harbor — should they stay or should they go? What will make these energetic young transplants want to remain, start families, buy houses? What's more important to the quality of life: the distillery at the new Under Armour campus, with its city-subsidized infrastructure, or a viable school system?

Governor Hogan's pronouncement that the city school system is a complete disaster is particularly offensive to me because I have lived in a city beleaguered by a true disaster, New Orleans. After the levees broke in 2005, middle-class families were forced to flee that city and start their lives elsewhere. They literally had no choice. Hurricane Katrina's aftermath also provided an opportunity to dismantle the public school system, which — surprise, surprise — has not been a resounding success.

In Baltimore, in Maryland, we already have a choice, and it has nothing to do with vouchers or charter schools. We can choose to do the right thing by the 82,354 children who are guaranteed an "adequate" education by the state constitution. The buck stops with you, Governor Hogan and Mayor Pugh. If you don't act, you could end up going down in history as the bickering Baron and Baroness Bomburst presiding over a city where the children once again have disappeared.

Laura Lippman is a former Sun reporter and a novelist with more than 20 published books. Twitter: @LauraMLippman.

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