On November 26, 1996, Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke stood at a podium at downtown's federal courthouse and choked back tears. "I can tell you from the bottom of my heart, everything tells me this is the right thing to do," he said, to raucous applause among elected officials and education leaders and advocates.
Schmoke was formally announcing the creation of a city-state partnership—one that would, hopefully, transform Baltimore City's beleaguered public schools into something resembling a functioning educational system. It was the result of two lawsuits on behalf of students and their parents fed up with the school system's low levels of state funding, and its inability to meet federal special education requirements.
The schools, frankly, were terrible at education and horribly mismanaged. And these problems were contributing in no small measure to the general lack of social cohesion in mid-1990's Baltimore, which was in the midst of a crack epidemic that made the city one of the most dangerous in the nation.
The lawsuits led Baltimore and Annapolis to figure out a way to try to fix the schools. The solutions—the city-state agreement, in which Baltimore agreed to work with (or, as some saw it, work for) state government to repair the school system—was called a sell-out by the school board's die-hard supporters. The charges of betrayal rang in Schmoke's ears that day.
Still, he said that he hoped that this moment would be recalled as "the day that the adults stopped fighting one another and joined and started fighting for the children."
Much of the press's language in the months leading up to that ceremonial moment and the months that followed was similarly monumental: It was a "turning point," "historic," a "fresh start," editorials and news articles asserted; a "new day" that would have a "profound impact" on the city's poor-performing and poorly managed schools.
The partnership was expected to charge in and save the day; it should have been clear that the job of fixing the city's schools would be much, much more difficult.
The partnership became law the following spring, and on June 1, 1997, it went into effect. After almost a century as a city agency, run by a mayor-appointed superintendent and board (who were all fired), the Baltimore City Public School System was now in the trust of an independent body of school commissioners which hired a CEO to run things. "It was dysfunctional to a degree that unless you blew it up, you weren't going to be able to fix it from the inside," says former state Senator Barbara Hoffman, who, with the late Del. Howard "Pete" Rawlings, was lead architect of the legislation that created the partnership. The very next year, at a meeting with state legislators in March 1998, interim city schools CEO Robert Schiller used reams of documents to illustrate the decades of academic and administrative neglect he'd inherited: More than two-thirds of the city's first- through fifth-graders weren't reading or computing at grade level. Fifteen different reading programs were being used in its 122 elementary schools, and not one of those schools was meeting state academic standards. The administrative functions of the system were an even bleaker quagmire of antiquated computer systems that churned out inaccurate enrollment and testing data. The city's crumbling school facilities were in need of $500 million in repairs, and many staffers and teachers were inadequately trained.
Schiller's synopsis prompted state Superintendent of Schools Nancy Grasmick to declare the state of city schools "more sobering than [previously] articulated.
"This system," she said, "is considered the lowest-performing [urban] system in the nation."
A decade and a half-dozen CEOs later, the city-state partnership hasn't lived up to its promise. The school system largely remains a bureaucracy beset by responsibility-ducking and fiscal woes. Baltimore's high school graduation rate is still one of the lowest in the nation among large school systems. Yet the huge class and school sizes that have long impeded student learning have been reduced, and some student test scores have risen steadily and significantly over the years.
Still, even those who helped create the partnership are unsure of how to rate its performance. Says Hoffman: "It may be a failed experiment, and it may not be."
For others, the results are more clear. "I believe very strongly," Schmoke says today, "that if all of us who were involved in education had been able to substantially improve the system and guarantee a great education to all of Baltimore City's children over the last 20 years, we wouldn't have the levels of crime and some of the other problems we're facing in the city."
The city-state partnership brought to light the failings of Baltimore City's public school system, some of which reach back 30 and 40 years. It raised issues of accountability in the system, even if it hasn't necessarily gotten results from that accountability. Along with violent crime, it's the most important issue facing the city. Unfortunately, like homicide, education woes are one of the most debilitating ailments facing the city.
What's ironic is that the partnership may have benefited school systems across the state as much as, if not more than, Baltimore City. The partnership triggered the Thornton Commission, which reviewed state public education funding, and led to the infusion of nearly $8 billion into school systems across the state over the last six years. "One of the impacts of the reform effort is that there's a recognition that there is a constitutional duty by the state to adequately fund public schools," the American Civil Liberties Union's Bebe Verdery says. "That was caused by the ACLU suit, the Baltimore City reform effort, and the city-state partnership. Now, people want to run for elective office on it. There's a universal awareness now that just did not exist."
The road to the city-state schools partnership dates back to 1983, when education officials from Baltimore City and the Eastern Shore filed a lawsuit which argued that the state was not fulfilling its constitutional duty to adequately educate the state's children, namely its poor. The suit was based on the fact that the Maryland constitution says the state must ensure a "thorough and efficient system of free public schools."
One of the first "equity" cases in the country, the plaintiffs asserted that they weren't getting as much state education funding as Maryland's richer counties. And while the court agreed that their children should indeed get an adequate education, the decision was that the plaintiffs had no right to equal funding. Case closed.
But the ACLU saw opportunity, and spent the next decade laying the groundwork for another suit in which the plaintiffs weren't faceless jurisdictions but parents of at-risk students in Baltimore City, where the educational inequities in the state were most poignant. "In the early 90's," Verdery says, "there was an increase in recognition and acceptance of state standards, and that is when it became so starkly evident that the children of Baltimore City were not achieving at the levels of other districts."
In December 1994, the ACLU sued the state on behalf of lead plaintiffs Keith and Stephanie Bradford, arguing that, because the city had the lowest test scores in the state, the lowest graduation rates, and the highest proportion of disadvantaged students, the system was woefully underfunded. The state counter-sued, asserting that the problems were not a result of insufficient funding, but poor school system management. Baltimore City filed its own education funding lawsuit against the state in late 1995, and the cases were consolidated into the Bradford suit.
A series of meetings between the parties and Baltimore City Circuit Court Judge Joseph H. H. Kaplan led to a settlement agreement signed on Nov. 26, 1996, a day before the case was slated for trial.
"The idea was to try to create a settlement that involved all parties of litigation and get them to focus on the common needs of the children, rather than the needs of the parties to the litigation," says Schmoke, now dean of Howard University's law school in Washington, D.C. "The partnership was an idea that came about by necessity. We came to a recognition that we were spending millions of dollars on litigation and that money could be better spent on students. But the only way the state was going to give us extra money was by gaining more control over the operations of the system."
Under the agreement, the state would give city schools, roughly, an extra $50 million a year for five years—but Annapolis wanted a voice in how that money was going to be spent and how the school system was going to be run. The mayor-controlled school board and superintendent would be dismissed, and the system would move under the control of a nine-member school board selected by the mayor and governor; that new board, in turn, would hire a CEO to run the system.
A mid-term evaluation showed that state education dollars still fell grossly short of what was needed to adequately educate Baltimore's children, and the city requested an additional $265 million in early 1999, with Judge Kaplan echoing its plea. Governor Parris N. Glendening denied the request, but not without state legislators from other distressed jurisdictions taking notice.
"I talked with a lawyer from Allegheny County, and Prince George's County was getting ready to sue," Verdery recalls. "So we had Judge Kaplan's ruling, and we had other counties starting to rumble and sending politicians the message that they were willing to sue, too."
With the constitutional question of the state's obligation to fund public education front-and-center, and a likely spike in litigation looming, the state legislature established the Thornton Commission on Education Finance, Equity and Excellence in 1999 to examine the state's school funding formula.
The commission's findings led to passage of legislation in 2002 that required the state to pump an additional $1.3 billion a year into public education over six years to bring all the state's school systems up to adequate funding levels. Between fiscal years 2003 and 2008, Baltimore's take has been $258 million; it's a lot, but it's still far short of the amount needed.
In the days following passage of the Thornton bill, a New York Times editorial lauded Maryland's "visionary school plan," saying that "More than 40 states have been sued for failing to provide poor districts with enough money to educate children up to the standards articulated in their own laws.
"Instead of fighting it out in court," the editorial continued, "Marylanders have decided to level the public school playing field as quickly as possible—so that all the state's children have a chance at decent lives. Other states, including New York and California, could learn from this enlightened example."
For 18 of the state's 24 jurisdictions, these are enlightened days: They will have exceeded "adequate" funding levels when the six years are up. But Baltimore City is one of the six areas that won't. With this year's shot of Thornton funds, Baltimore schools will still be inadequately funded, according to the measures the Thornton Commission used in its initial review. "The issue is still funding," Schmoke says, 20 years after he was elected mayor on a promise to turn around Baltimore City's then-as-now ailing schools.
But not all of the school system's problems can be remedied with more money. There's the oft-maligned "North Avenue" (the location of the school administration HQ) that, in the view of many, keeps the system from working efficiently. Other critics point out that the partnership was overly optimistic, and that it lacked foresight and was riddled with flaws—resulting in huge budget deficits and bitter political tangling between Governor Robert Ehrlich and wannabe Governor/Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley during the 2006 gubernatorial election.
Still, the partnership hasn't been all bad. Student achievement is up, if still lagging behind statewide averages. Since 1997, the city's giant (and often notorious) high schools have been broken up into smaller academies. A Kindergarten through Grade 8 model has replaced some middle schools. Pre-K classes have been expanded. And the amount of city school funding given by the state has more than doubled.
"Test scores in elementary schools have gone up every year since the city-state partnership," Verdery says. "That is a remarkable trajectory that is probably unmatched by any other urban school system in the country. And the city school system has funded a number of reforms that would not have been possible without additional funding."
Ten years on, what differences has the partnership made? One of the biggest criticisms of the partnership is that there was never any real accountability built in, allowing the city, state and various other parties involved to alternately duck blame for mistakes and take credit where convenient. But at least accountability became an issue during the course of the last decade, and it's a regular part of the lexicon when it comes to discussing local education reforms. Prior to 1997, that clearly wasn't the case.
There's the simple fact that the very issue of education in Baltimore City has gained prominence and staying power. School stories consistently land on the front page of area newspapers, and lead the top of local television news hours.
And be it Ehrlich and O'Malley, or Mayor Sheila Dixon and her lead mayoral opponent Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr., politicians are increasingly using their positions on city school reforms to distinguish themselves from one another.
But ten years on, the only thing politicians can still agree on is that the school system is incredibly important to the citizens of Baltimore. "So many of the problems are interrelated," says former Mayor Schmoke. "If Baltimore could advertise having a great public school system, [it] would be a huge benefit to many other aspects of quality of life."
The partnership was born with unrealistic expectations, and it's been unable to complete its mission. But it did put education on the radar for local and state politicians, which has meant more money for schools across Maryland.
As well-regarded new CEO Andres Alonso takes the reigns of the Baltimore City schools, he faces more than just a system in turmoil. He has to deal with the mess Baltimore and Annapolis have made.