It’s true that 23 Baltimore schools had no students proficient in math, but there’s more to the story. Here’s some context. | GUEST COMMENTARY

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Imagine the flip of a coin. On one side you end up as a student attending Walt Whitman High in Bethesda, one of the best schools in the state. The other you become a student at Reach! Partnership School, where a recent report from Fox45′s Project Baltimore found there were no students proficient in math. This claim was presented, without examination or context, side by side with the community outrage that it has rightfully sparked. Our schools are failing — however, the why of this story is as important as the what.

We know that many factors affect student performance, including class size, funding and even the backgrounds of students. The Project Baltimore findings took none of these factors into consideration.


Let’s revisit the coin flip. Our student from Reach! Partnership lives a much different life than our student from Walt Whitman. There is only a 33% chance that this student has stable access to food and housing, meaning this student or their close friends will experience food instability or homelessness before they graduate high school. Students without stable food or housing are called “economically disadvantaged” by the state of Maryland and make up 77% of Reach! Partnership. Compare this to our student at Walt Whitman, where only 2% of students are flagged as economically disadvantaged, meaning 98% of their classmates will never experience homelessness or even government support through WIC, food stamps or other programs.

In fact, our Walt Whitman student will likely live in a nice house, with a median value around $1 million, and in a very safe neighborhood. In Bethesda, Maryland, where Walt Whitman High is located, the average household income is just over $172,000 annually. The cost of housing affects how much money is spent on schools, allowing students access to smaller class sizes and more specialized classes that will prepare students better for college or their careers. By contrast, our student at Reach! Partnership might have a house at the median value of $74,000 and a household income of about $39,000, restricting their access to education opportunities by virtue of where they live. Our Reach! Partnership student also is more likely to experience teacher shortages or have inexperienced teachers, and to come to high school with lingering educational gaps from elementary and middle school. Additionally, they face crime rates that are double or triple the national average in assault, murder, theft and so on.


All of these conditions in Reach! Partnership amount to much lower funding for academics per student. Baltimore City schools have a high cost per student, on par with other metropolitan areas such as New York City. However, this money isn’t equally distributed to schools in the system, and, unlike in New York, a significant portion (34%) of the budget goes to caring for homeless or economically disadvantaged youth through an allotment called the compensatory budget. If we break this funding down at the school level, the $21,606 per student figure that Fox45 relies on tells a different story. To get its number, Fox takes the school system’s entire $1.6 billion budget and divides by the total number of students in the city system. The amount actually spent per student is much lower.

Taking per school allocations, or the money actually delivered to the schools, from the Baltimore City Budget, by my calculation, we find that Reach! Partnership receives about $6.5 million for its 695 students, averaging to $9,549 per student. The schools in the Project Baltimore report have an average funding of $9,923 per student by this allocation. But if we look at the state’s high-performing schools, they have an average of $14,000 per student, with Walt Whitman having $15,077. This means the Walt Whitman student is significantly less likely to have classes taught by long-term subs or have teachers leave in the middle of the year, as the teachers at Walt Whitman are paid significantly more on average than their city peers. Not only are the Baltimore City Schools underfunded by thousands of dollars, but over a third of the money goes to survival services for students. This expenditure is missing or minimal in the budgets of the high performing schools, meaning more money can be spent on Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate or other specialized programs.

If we are going to summarize our tale of two schools, one school has students who are 77% more likely to be homeless and are more than double as likely to be a victim of violence, whereas the other school spends $5,000 more on each of its likely well-housed and safe students — roughly 50% more per student. So now that we know why one school outperforms the other, the question is: What are we going to do about it?

Peter Baum ( is an ESOL teacher at Woodlawn High School in Baltimore County.