Every week, it seems, we are hit with yet another headline outlining the latest examples of corruption in the Baltimore City Public School System, which has been failing a tragically large swath of Baltimore’s children for generations. But there is another party just as culpable in this school system’s fraud and failure: the Maryland General Assembly.
The General Assembly’s willful blindness to the multitude of problems facing Baltimore City public schools is only surpassed by its unwillingness to act decisively to address issues while simultaneously blocking the efforts of any other agency or body to step in.
Nearly 20 years ago, the General Assembly intervened to prohibit the state’s takeover of 11 failing schools in Baltimore City. Several of these schools were closed for consolidation purposes. Those that remain open are still failing. In this one politically driven action decades ago, the General Assembly forced generations of Baltimore City schoolchildren to attend schools that everyone knew could not meet their needs.
This is a scenario that has been repeated in the years since. Politics and special interests have ruled the day in Annapolis, and Baltimore City’s schoolchildren have had to live with the consequences. Those in power pay them a great deal of lip service and show up for photo ops, but at the end of the day, they do nothing that could really help. The examples abound, but here are few from the last year.
The General Assembly snuffed out the BOOST program, a scholarship program that allows children from low-income families to attend private schools. This bipartisan effort has been a target for the state’s ever-powerful teachers’ union, which for years vigorously fought legislation to establish the program. It wasn’t until Gov. Larry Hogan included the program in his budget that these children and families were given the opportunity to seek a quality education. The program has consistently had more applicants than funding, but this year the General Assembly took budget actions to phase out the program entirely over the next several years. Why eliminate such a successful program? It clearly isn’t because Baltimore City schools have rebounded, but to appease the teachers’ union and others who oppose public dollars funding private education. While many in Annapolis label every action with “it’s for the children,” this action was clearly “for the union.”
The General Assembly also has seen fit to meddle in the work of the new Office of the Inspector General for Education, an agency created solely to investigate waste, fraud and abuse in the public school system. The governor’s FY 2022 budget included appropriations of $1,916,644 for the new agency, with seven new positions to help this small office in its mission to investigate reports of waste, fraud and abuse in school systems across Maryland. The General Assembly cut three of the seven new positions. They also held back funding ($528,678) for the remaining four positions until the office produced a report on how it communicates with parents when issuing subpoenas. Even if these funds are released, the Office of the Inspector General’s full budget for this fiscal year is 26% less than what was originally proposed. These budget decisions were made concurrent with headlines of students with 0.13 GPAs being promoted; the existence of ghost students, whose names appear on class rolls but who don’t attend school; and grade changing within Baltimore City’s school system. And they were made with the full knowledge that this department was in the process of investigating the school system. Refusing to fully fund this office is little more than obstruction.
The deceit in the Baltimore City School system is a topic that few in Annapolis want to discuss. Should it be brought up, it is amid many protestations, and at least one member will stand and talk about what amazing schools there are in the city, sharing stories of success and resilience. There is no doubt that this is true. Not all schools are failing, not all administrators are committing fraud, and, of course, there are some success stories.
But this truth does not counter what is also true: Fraud is rampant, and the school system is failing in its duty to many of Baltimore’s children. When someone has lung cancer, doctors don’t pretend it doesn’t exist because there isn’t cancer in other parts of the body. The level of fraud in Baltimore City schools is like a cancer. It has metastasized — almost completely unchecked — for decades. The Maryland General Assembly has stood in the way of treating the disease of fraud. For Baltimore City Public School System to do its duty to its students, this must end.