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State continues to ignore court order to properly fund Baltimore schools | COMMENTARY

Baltimore schools are still underfunded by the state, despite court orders requiring more money be infused into the school system.
Baltimore schools are still underfunded by the state, despite court orders requiring more money be infused into the school system.(GENE SWEENEY JR / Baltimore Sun)

As the Maryland legislature begins its official review of the Kirwan Commission recommendations for legislation that would provide additional support for Maryland’s public schools, it’s important to remember how we got here.

More than 20 years ago, the Circuit Court for Baltimore City held in Bradford v. Maryland State Board of Education that Maryland’s constitution requires the state to ensure that all children receive an adequate education. Under the “thorough and efficient” education clause of the state’s constitution, every student is entitled to the resources that will allow them to meet contemporary educational standards, regardless of zip code.

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The court found that the state was violating this duty when it came to students in Baltimore City Public Schools As a result, the state established the Thornton Commission, and later the Kirwan Commission, to assess the “adequacy gap,” or the amount of money required to comply with the constitution.

Sadly, the state still isn’t meeting its responsibility to Baltimore children, and this will be further exposed as the bill comes due to implement recommendations of the Kirwan Commission.

In a recent decision, Judge Audrey Carrion allowed renewed litigation in the Bradford case to proceed. Parents in the case are still seeking sufficient funding because state officials ignored court orders for years. The needs of the students in Baltimore far exceed the funds imagined in the proposed Kirwan bill before Maryland lawmakers. In fact, current figures show that Baltimore schools have an annual adequacy gap of at least $342 million per year in educational funding.

If Kirwan is implemented, it would be almost another decade until the state fills the annual funding gap facing city schools. The proposed legislation fails to account for the cumulative impact of the state chronically underfunding Baltimore schools for generations, which is compounded by the segregation and structural inequality that has led to the persistent and alarming racial disparities between Baltimore schools — where black students compose approximately 80% of the student population — and other districts in the state.

In addition to the adequacy gap, funding for renovating and rebuilding old and deficient school buildings has been grossly inadequate for years. While the ACLU and advocates were able to secure some funding through the 21st Century Schools program to rebuild a small number of schools, there are still over 100 school buildings in need of a major rebuild. It will take at least $3 billion dollars for school facilities in Baltimore to meet industry standards. According to a 2012 BCPSS facilities report, 85% of the system’s buildings were rated as being in “poor” or “very poor” condition and had ancient boiler systems, roofs in need of replacement, deficient electrical and fire safety systems, and un-remedied lead in water pipes.

Altogether, students in Baltimore have collectively missed 1.5 million hours of school over the last five years because of these deficiencies. Because Baltimore lacks the resources of other jurisdictions of comparable size to supplement their school maintenance and construction budgets, the school system must pay for many emergency repairs and renovations to facilities out of its operating budget, which then unavoidably diverts dollars from instruction. Taken together, this drain on already meager funding resources exacerbates the unconstitutional adequacy gap in Baltimore schools.

Gov. Larry Hogan has shown he is unwilling to meet the real needs of children in city schools. He has repeatedly expressed skepticism about increasing funding for children’s education in Baltimore, even though that funding is essential to meet the state’s constitutional duty. Shamefully, his opposition has become a dog whistle for Mr. Hogan’s suburban and rural voter constituencies. It was even reported that Governor Hogan is raising a campaign war chest specifically to thwart efforts to fully fund Maryland public schools, rather than giving children the support they need to learn and thrive.

While the increased funding contemplated by the Kirwan Commission is needed, the need is simply not the same for every district. Ongoing and historical inequity impacts the adequacy gap and has very real implications for children in Baltimore. In fact, on DonorsChoose.org, a website that allows teachers to privately fundraise for resources for their students, Baltimore schools currently have more than 190 active posts — most for basic supplies like paper, bottled water and space heaters. Crowdsourcing should not be a part of their jobs.

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Baltimore children cannot depend on the continued outsourcing of public education to private charity while the state fails to fulfill its constitutional responsibility.

Ajmel Quereshi (aquereshi@naacpldf.org) is senior counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and Cara McClellan (cmcclellan@naacpldf.org) is assistant counsel.

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