Civil Rights Groups Push for Funding to Address Inequities at Baltimore Public Schools

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Parents and advocates for Baltimore City public school students in a long-running educational equity lawsuit are calling on Maryland’s top elected officials to substantially increase funding for city schools in the upcoming legislative session.

“Providing adequate funding supporting public school education in Baltimore City is not only the right thing to do, it is the State’s responsibility under the Maryland Constitution and binding court orders,” the ACLU of Maryland and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund wrote in a letter to Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R), Senate President Bill Ferguson (D–Baltimore City) and House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D–Baltimore County) this week.

The Bradford v. Maryland State Board of Education lawsuit was first filed in 1994. Two years later, a Baltimore City Circuit Court judge ruled that the state violated the Maryland Constitution by failing to provide Baltimore City students a “thorough and efficient” education.

This led the city schools and the state to enter into a consent decree, which provided more funding and rearranged the governance structure in city schools. Since then, Baltimore City public schools have received over $2 billion in increased state funding from the consent decree and the “Thornton” education funding formula.

However, the two civil rights organizations reopened the case in 2019, asserting that the state had not been holding up to its responsibility to provide enough funding to city schools. More specifically, they argued that Maryland had stopped adjusting the formula for inflation in 2008 and has been providing less funding than is required for adequate education in city schools.

According to the ACLU, there was a $290 million gap in 2015 between how much the state was required to provide to city schools and what was funded.

By 2017, Baltimore City schools were underfunded by $342 million per year, according to a Department of Legislative Services report. And the school system needed at least $3 billion to restore its school buildings and facilities. There are 100 school buildings that are “in desperate need of renovations or rebuilding,” some lacking reliable heat and air condition, safe drinking water and basic security measures, according to the letter.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated inequities, placing city students further behind and making adequate funding even more critical this year, the plaintiffs’ attorneys wrote in the letter.

“[Baltimore City students] will return to schools that have been chronically and systemically underfunded for well over a decade by the state’s own estimates,” Ajmel Quereshi, the senior counsel, of NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund said at a press conference Wednesday.

The state was supposed to revise its school funding formula in 2012 according to law, but that process has been continually delayed, said Frank Patinella, senior education advocate at the ACLU of Maryland. Beginning in 2016, the Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education met to revise the state’s education funding formula and recommend a slew of public education reforms. The commission’s final recommendations were adopted by the legislature in 2020, but that bill was vetoed by Hogan.

“We are now approaching school year 2021 and the pandemic has exacerbated the impacts of chronic underfunding and disparate academic outcomes in Maryland schools,” Patinella said.

Keysha Goodwin, a parent of high school student in the city, said the “deplorable conditions” of public school buildings, including mold, mildew and lead, make her wary of sending her son back to school.

“I would expect for our government to move swiftly in investing in our youth,” she said. “They can invest in Under Armour, they can invest in a juvenile detention center. So please, do what you’re supposed to do and support the Blueprint and invest in our youth.”

The Bradford case is still open and pending in the Circuit Court for Baltimore City. Since it is unlikely that trial will begin before the end of this academic year, the plaintiffs are imploring state leaders to increase resources for city schools in the upcoming legislative session.

First, they are calling the General Assembly to override Hogan’s veto of the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future (the education reform bill) and the Built to Learn Act, which would have provided $2.2 billion in additional school construction money throughout the state. The Blueprint bill would have helped close the funding gap for city schools, although not fully, the plaintiffs said.

Revenues from online sales taxes have generated enough revenue to fund the education reforms included in the Blueprint bill through fiscal year 2026, legislative analysts said this week. The state also has a surplus in its Rainy Day Fund, which is over $1 billion, he continued.

Lawmakers should also pass legislation to provide immediate funding to low-income families, English language learners and special education students in Baltimore City, as well as prioritize funding for districts with the largest adequacy gaps, including Baltimore City, Prince George’s County and Caroline County, the groups said.

The plaintiffs are also calling for a fiscal year 2022 budget that includes “bridge” funding to help school districts fill holes in their budgets while they await full Blueprint funding.

The state should also provide additional funding to meet challenges caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and reimburse districts that spent a significant amount to implement virtual learning, the plaintiffs wrote. Additional tutoring, adequate computer devices and internet services are all essential for students experiencing the greatest learning loss, Patinella said.

In addition, school districts should be held harmless for enrollment declines due to the pandemic, which would otherwise trigger a loss in funding, Patinella said.

“We urge you to consider the fiscal year 2022 budget and legislative session as an opportunity to recognize the lack of resources for City Schools, stop the snowballing generational effects of underfunded education, and make these communities whole even before the Court has the opportunity to act on the plaintiffs’ renewed Court petition,” the plaintiffs concluded in the letter.

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