Teacher layoffs, overcrowded classrooms, unbearable temperatures in both the highs and lows: these are only a handful of the many challenges faced by Baltimore City public schools. For decades, both state and city governments have consistently underfunded education in city schools to the great detriment of Baltimore’s youth, particularly its poor, Black, and Hispanic students.
The beginning of 2017 saw the latest major iteration of inadequate funding, with a $130 million gap in a $1.3 billion budget for the 2018 fiscal year. Baltimore City Public School System (BCPSS) CEO Sonja Santelises originally planned to reduce the gap by laying off 1,000 people and by cutting arts and enrichment programs. It was only due to the work of activists, advocates, and community organizations, from the ACLU to the Baltimore Education Coalition, that the gap shrunk to $30 million. After intense pressure from these groups, state and city officials pledged an extra $60 million to the budget, and Santelises closed the shortfall by another $40 million. The boost resulted in a major decrease to the proposed job cuts, allowing schools to retain crucial educators they believed they would be forced to let go. Yet the now 115 layoffs marked the third continuous year of cuts.
Although the reductions for the 2017-2018 school year included only 13 classroom teachers, students suffer from the absence of important, if auxiliary, staff members. With fewer librarians, counselors, and arts coordinators, schools cannot provide students the comprehensive services they deserve. Psychological, social, and academic support from counselors, who provide a safe outlet for addressing personal or education challenges, should be a facet of every student’s school experience. Libraries and arts studios allow youth to cultivate knowledge, gain skills, and deepen their interests in a self-directed manner, with greater freedom than the typical classroom structure allows.
Underfunding affects not only the people involved in creating a quality educational experience, but the infrastructure which facilitates that experience. As students returned from winter break in early January, 60 schools—one-third of all the ones in the system—found themselves without sufficient heat. Santelises herself admitted that “too many of our buildings have outdated heating systems, poor insulation, and aging pipes as a result of years of inadequate funding for maintenance and facilities improvements,” as The Baltimore Sun reported. Students shivered, bundled in winter wear as teachers lifted usual uniform rules, in classrooms which reached lows in the 30s and 40s.
In such an environment, it is impossible to learn, as many students and teachers alike pointed out. Moreover, it is unjust that the infrastructural conditions for such a situation would be even allowed to arise, never mind remain unrectified. The problem was so urgent that parents began their own online fundraisers for space heaters, coats, and blankets. When conditions reached this extreme, the decision to close schools had perhaps equally grave consequences. For many students, attending school means at least one hot meat a day and adult supervision they would otherwise lack, particularly those who come from low-income families with working parents who cannot afford losing a day on the job.
It is, as usual, the poorest students who face the greatest detriment in the perennial lack of adequate education funding. Its causes are numerous and complicated, tied to the intertwined racial and economic inequality of the city. Underfunding perpetuates the systemic inequities which prevent Black and Hispanic students from receiving opportunities and keeps them in harmful cycles of poverty.
On January 23rd of this year, the city school board approved a new plan which places poverty levels, rather than standardized test scores, at the center of its funding formula. This latest initiative is, perhaps, finally a recognition of the failure of the “fair student model,” BCPSS’s former funding plan, to actually provide a substantial measure of equity in education. Although the old model intended to give schools more autonomy in how and where their budgets were spent by placing fiscal responsibility largely on individual school principals, it resulted in competition among schools for students, as each school received a base amount of $5,400 per student, with additional funds for high- or low-performing ones and those at risk of dropping out.
Yet it is questionable whether the weight of poverty versus standardized test scores will ultimately be effective. The new plan seems to retain many elements of the fair student model, and it seems to fail at distinguishing the differing—but equally important—needs of student academic achievement and of communities facing poverty. While both the academic and socioeconomic spheres overlap, they are still distinct, and they often requiring different resources.
City officials recognize, however, that even the new plan is but a band-aid—if a very large one—for the deeper inequity of the education system. Until both the state and city governments address the structural and systemic failures of education funding and its bonds to racial and economic inequality in a radically new, transformative way, it is difficult to see how meaningful, lasting, and sustainable changes will come about for Baltimore City public schools.
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