America is currently faced with an issue of the highest importance which needs to be immediately addressed. That issue is the education and preparation of today's youths for their future. As citizens of the United States, we pledge to assure freedom, opportunity, and equality, to each and every citizen. This is far from the norm as we take an in-depth look at our education system. Communities are disproportionately receiving economic assistance based on the affluence of the area. The rates are backwards, as the wealthy school districts are getting richer, and the poorer school districts are getting poorer. As citizens, these children deserve an education second to none, no matter what school district theyíre in. There are many ways to attempt to resolve this conflict, but, it is my opinion that installing bills like House Bill 312, currently in the Maryland State Legislature, is the way to go. It should serve as a model of how to give equal assistance to communities in need, and how to ease the gap which has been created by the backward trend of the last thirty years. It will serve as the focus of this paper, as it should be the focus of communities across America in weeks and months to come.
House Bill 312, Primary and Secondary Education - New Baltimore City Board of School Commissioners, is an issue which has many supporters and many opponents. Many people, including businessmen, politicians, and children, have a stake in this issue. The quality of education which a certain area receives both directly and indirectly affects these different groups. Children are the obvious group, and the one which should be targeted as the group in need of assistance. Politicians have to take an interest, the extent of which is determined by the interest of their constituents. Finally, businessmen are a very interested group because the better the education, the more kids stay in school and off the streets to wreck havoc on local businesses.
The synopsis of House Bill 312 as offered by the Maryland General Assembly is as follows:
Establishing the New Baltimore City Board of School Commissioners; transferring responsibility for the functions formerly performed by the Superintendent of Public Instruction of Baltimore City and the Board of School Commissioners of Baltimore City to the New Board; specifying the powers and duties of the Board; specifying that the provisions of the Act reflect specified consent decrees and a commitment to appropriate additional funds for the Baltimore City public schools; and providing for the termination of the Act. (MGA Home Page, Online).
The bill also calls for a total of $254 million in additional funds to be added to the budget of the new school board. The corresponding bill in the Senate, Senate Bill 795, was passed on March 28, 1997, and if House Bill 312 is passed before Sine Die, the end of the session, in the Maryland State Legislature on April 7, 1997, than Baltimore City can begin the reconstruction of the school board.
There are many people supporting this bill including the Secretary of Higher Education for the state of Maryland, Patricia S. Florestano, several delegates and senators in Maryland, Mayor Kurt Schmoke of Baltimore, child advocacy groups including Advocates for Children and Youth, and the parents and students of Baltimore Cityís schools. They each have their own reasons for supporting the bill with the main focus being the well-being of the children. The foundation for their argument is the decrepit conditions and poor grades currently found in the Baltimore City schools. Specific causes are debatable but the responsibility to correct these conditions undoubtedly lies in the hands of the stateís leaders. As pointed out by the ACLU of Maryland in their testimony on the bill, ìIn Maryland, that obligation is codified in our State Constitution, which obligates the General Assembly to establish and maintain a ëthorough and efficientí system of public schoolsî (1). The citizens of Baltimore City, therefore, have the right to point their fingers at the State Legislature and demand change.
The number of state representatives who are denying that the schools of Baltimore City need help are few and far between in Maryland. The arguments lie in the perspectives these representatives hold on what the best possible course of action should be. Many of the problems found with the bill are rooted in the authority the new board would have. As opposed to the current system of elected school board officials, House Bill 312 calls for appointed members which would be selected by both the mayor of Baltimore and by the governor. This is not the extent of the situation however.
The mayor of Baltimore and the governor would have to choose the board out of a pool already prepared for their perusal which means, ultimately, the choice would be out of their hands for who is to sit on the board. In addition to this, they would put together a school board with its members answerable to no one. They are not elected and as such, they are in control of their own destiny. The only response to this by the creators of the bill is found in the bill itself. It stipulates that ìthe board shall be held accountable for the academic achievement of the public school students in Baltimore City.î The bill also states that, ì[the board will] improve the management and administration of the public school system in Baltimore Cityî (5). It is a valid argument, but one which will probably be corrected through amendments to the bill to make it an elected body. The necessary parts of the bill, however, are that the funds be appropriated, and their is a new board of dedicated and caring individuals.
The opponents of House Bill 312 include Governor Glandenning, several senators and delegates in Maryland including Delegates Mitchell and Leopald, other county school boards in Maryland, and constituents from other counties in Maryland. The main argument being posed by other counties in Maryland is that they do not have idealistic conditions in their schools either. They believe that if there is two hundred fifty-four million dollars laying around for education, then that money should be distributed equally among all counties in Maryland. This argument is retorted by the proponents, including myself, with the following statistics.
Eighty-seven percent of Baltimore City Public School's children are not meeting statewide requirements. An even more alarming statistic is that one-sixth of Marylandís students attend schools in Baltimore City and comprise these figures (MBRT, 2). An additional atrocity provided by proponents is that the percentage of students graduating on time from Baltimore City schools is 38.9%. The average for the state of Maryland is 75% (Kid's Count, 74). It is impossible to dismiss these facts as they are absolute truths. Instead, the opponents ignore those numbers and point out low figures from their districts which they find comparable. The fact remains the children in Baltimore City need help and House Bill 312 suggests a solution.
Robert E. Slavin from the Center for Research on the Education of Students Placed at Risk, at Johns Hopkins University, is quoted as making the following predictions regarding the new board which House Bill 312 would create. ìThey can probably improve fiscal management, install a working computer system, get an accurate count of special education students, and reduce boiler explosionsî (Siegel). Patricia S. Florestano, Secretary of Higher Education for the state of Maryland, also had some thoughts on the bill. ìWithout fundamental changes in structure and governance, the Baltimore City Public School System is unlikely to be able to meet the quality education challenge - and the loss will be these young people's and it will be oursî (3).
The Maryland Business Roundtable for Education (MBRT) is a statewide coalition of 79 leading businesses that have made a ten-year commitment to support education reform and improve student achievement in Maryland. They are fully behind the bill and they believe the bill, ìsupports a sustained and honest effort of the affected parties to strengthen the management of Baltimore City public schools and require stronger accountability for student learningî (2). They go on to insist that the bill would give Baltimore Cityís children the same chances being given at schools all over Maryland. ì[The MBRT] supports efforts to insist and ensure that all children in Maryland be given the opportunity to succeed in the 21st centuryî (2).
They side with groups such as the ACLU of Maryland, the Essex Construction Company, the Maryland State Department of Education, Mayor Kurt Schmoke of Baltimore, Major Riddick - the Governor's Chief of Staff, Advocates for Children and Youth, and citizens of Baltimore City. It is an issue which is drawing a lot of attention to itself and one that carries a huge debate on its shoulders. The debate which many of these proponents are faced with is not one regarding cause or even jurisdiction. Rather, the debate is centered entirely around action. What is the action that needs to be taken to solve the problems currently gripping Baltimore City's schools, and, which will set a precedent for all of America's troubled schools?
It is impossible to predict what the final outcome of this particular issue will be, but we will have a much better idea come the end of the session on April 7, 1997 at midnight. It will be a landmark decision either way, however, as Maryland will either be one of the first states to take a dedicated stance on education and set a standard, or the issue of education will be put on the back burner again. Many of the proponents and opponents of this issue, and issues similar to it across the nation, have one very important shared interest in this heated debate - that something comes out of all this. The children need help and they need it now. If nothing is passed by the end of the session, the children will have to wait until next year before they can even introduce another bill. It is a question of action, will one be taken in favor of Baltimore City's schools, and all of Americaís educational institutions, or will it be thrown aside and forgotten. We can only hope and pray that House Bill 312 will be passed, and that other states will begin to notice the inequities in education gripping communities everywhere.
This paper was prepared in 1997 for a colloquium facilitated by Stephen Wright, instructor for the Advocates for Children program, part of the College Park Scholars community at the University of Maryland, College Park.