A Better Baltimore, Part II: Education
This seems like a particularly advantageous time to talk about fixing the schools in Baltimore. The discussion about Governor Larry Hogan’s decision to not fund the voluntary Geographic Cost of Education Index funding this year has spun Maryland Democrats into a tizzy about how Governor Hogan “doesn’t fully support schools” or such nonsense. This is of course after years of Governor Martin O’Malley not “fully funding” GCEI and after Governor Hogan gave Maryland schools the largest increase in K-12 spending in state history.
The funny thing about Baltimore schools however is the fact that all of the money in the world so far has not fixed them. Even when Baltimore does get money, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the money is ever going to make it to schools in the first place. Remember, this is the same city that misplaced $54 million in state money that was earmarked for education, yet demanded that the state get them that much (and more) in order to replace it, and the school system was running a nearly $60 million deficit before the GCEI money became an issue.
Needless to say, Baltimore schools are and have been a mismanaged mess for years. A 1997 decision to turn control of the city schools over to the state from the city has not been the panacea that so many thought it would be. Instead of becoming a problem of mismanagement from the city, it’s been an issue of mismanagement of the state.
Nobody can deny the importance of fixing Baltimore’s school system. One of the reasons that drugs and crime are such an important crisis facing Baltimore right now is the fact that many school-aged kids see absolutely no way out. There are several great stories of individuals, often athletes, finding their way without engaging in the crime and drug trade. However, for so many kids it’s the only way that they see an opportunity to a better life. Education is a way for students to find out that there is more to life than that. But unfortunately, given a dilapidated physical plant, teacher tenure, and a bloated administration, there are too many hurdles to providing a quality education to Baltimore’s students.
So how do we go about fixing that? There are many avenues that (primarily) the state can take in order to start to get some control over education in Baltimore:
- Pass the Education Tax Credits: The General Assembly failed to pass an Education Tax Credit this year that would have allowed businesses to receive a tax credit when donating money to third-party scholarships for private education. Such a tax credit would provide more and more opportunities for low-income Baltimore students to escape public schools and get a much better education in one of Baltimore’s private schools. As Archbishop William Lori said in the Catholic Review, “Imagine if every child in Sandtown-Winchester could attend school in a system that graduates 99 percent of its students and sends 98 percent of them to college.”
- Reallocate the Budget: The FY 2016 budget adopted by the Baltimore City Public Schools calls for roughly $1.14 billion in people costs. That’s 85.5% of the school system budget. includes, salaries, benefits, and contractual services. While the School system is patting itself on the back for cutting $20 million in salaries and fringe benefits, the amount spent on contracts actually increased by $14 million, for a real savings of less than $6 million. That dirty little secret of public education is how little money actually goes into classroom instruction i.e. physical plant, curriculum, etc. Even in Anne Arundel County, 81% of the budget is dedicated to personnel. However, even if Baltimore City reallocated it’s personnel costs to a ratio similar to Anne Arundel County, it would free up an addition $6 million in money that can be redirected to the classroom.
- Cut the Bureaucracy: In too many school districts, the levels between decision makers and classroom teachers are immense. The people making the decisions at school headquarters are so far removed from the classroom that they really cannot comprehend the situation on the ground in classrooms. It makes it impossible to determine whether or not things are working and whether or not improvements are being made to the system. Bloated bureaucracy makes it hard to let those in the classroom make the decisions that they need to make, but also in making sure that classroom teachers have the support of the administration when it comes to disciplining students. The school system should set out to cut 10% of its existing bureaucracy though attrition and reassignment of current administrative personnel to roles that more actively support students in the classroom. This should not be an across the board cut to the bureaucracy, but the School Board should work with the Governor and the Mayor to identify efficiencies in the existing bureaucratic structure that are ineffective or just no longer necessary to modern school administration.
- Expand Charter Schools: Let’s face facts: charter school students generally attend a better school and receive a better education than they would if they were attending their neighborhood schools. That is a generalization, of course, however the fact remains that not enough opportunities are given to students to attend charter schools. Eventually, every child should have the opportunity to attend a charter school, however continued expansion of the charter school system in Baltimore will provide more opportunities for more students. More charter schools should be placed in those economically disadvantaged areas which most need better schools for their residents.
- City-wide School Vouchers: Sometimes drastic situations call for drastic measures. Obviously, vouchers are anathema to the teachers union leaders who tend to call the shots in the Maryland Democratic Party. They have the tendency to believe that vouchers threaten union jobs and that take money out of public school systems. Technically, that is correct. However what’s more important, protecting union jobs or educating students? Most rational people understand that a better education leads to better economic opportunities, and that a rising tide lifts all boats. Therefore, a limited, Baltimore City-online voucher program should be established so that qualifying students can leave the public school system behind and get opportunities for a better education among the many private schools that exist in the Baltimore area. While some may argue that this is not a fair decision to make to take the students out of public schools entirely, however one could hardly argue that they are being well-served by the existing public school infrastructure. The Maryland State Constitution puts the responsibility for public education on the state. I would argue that the responsibility of public education does not limit the state to forcing a failed educational system on students who do not have opportunities to escape it, and that it would be in the best interest of taxpayers to give school vouchers to qualifying students in order for the state to fulfill its Constitutional obligation to providing for the education of city students.
- End Tenure: Tenure protects bad teachers. Plain and simple. Ending tenure in city schools will allow good teachers to prosper and will force bad teachers to move along. Ending tenure, incidentally, does not mean automatically firing teachers. Ending tenure, partially as I envision it, will allow teachers to be eligible for higher pay and benefits based on their performance, and it will help to ensure that those teachers who are best suited to teach the students who need their help the most will be able to do so. No longer should teachers who are new to the city school system be forced into under-performing schools and then transfer out as soon as they are eligible. We must make sure that our best teachers are where they are needed the most, and ending tenure as it exists in Baltimore will be one way to make sure that happens and also to make sure that schools are not stuck with the same underperforming teachers year after year.
Yes, many of these proposals are controversial. Yes, many of them would be opposed by the teacher’s union. But consider where Baltimore is, where the status quo has gotten the school system, and about how teacher union self-interest has harmed city schools. New ideas, no matter how controversial, are necessary in order to help students reach their potential as students and as adults. The time for half-measures and giving merely lip service to public schools has passed. It’s now actually time to do something about it to help Baltimore’s youth escape the never-ending cycle of generational poverty.