Education and Self-Determination


As in other policy areas, lack of democratic control or accountability (to neighborhoods, and to black neighborhoods in particular) is a thread that connects the city’s past policy decisions to the present ones. Currently, with regard to buildings, curriculum, hiring, and programs, for instance, citizens have only superficial control, offered the chance to give “community input,” for instance, but not any structural political power. There are some entities that have been created for parent and community voice, however. PCAB (Parent and Community Advisory Board) has provided the appearance of parent and community input into school-decision making, but it has no power to hire or fire, or over budget matters, and is therefore too limited in what it can do to provide a check and balance to centralized control. There are also school family councils (SFCs) but like, PCAB, which is a city-wide group  does not have much power. The group of parents that get the most attention are the PTO/PTAs, but they only have a fundraising role for the school and do nothing to empower the voice of the families whose children attend the school to make policy changes.

One way Baltimore has tried to engage community is through “community schools,” which are schools that provide a set of services to the entire school community like social and medical services on site. Because so many of Baltimore’s communities are low income, many families in need take advantage of these services and they serve a need. The Baltimore Educational Research Consortium has found that the community schools do indeed provide children and families with more support than in schools that do not provide these services. However, the community schools still keep the communities at bay. They have them to come to the school for support but do not engage them in leadership training, invite them to make decisions, or allow them to control anything at the school in terms of curriculum, for instance. All of those decisions remain centralized and/or in the hands of the non-profits that help run community schools throughout the city, making it virtually impossible to imagine cultural and community relevance and responsiveness.

Centralization is justified by the fact that Baltimore is a city with limited funding. Because of its limited local funding contribution, the state retains a great deal of control over city schools. It appoints the city’s school board (in conjunction with the mayor), and controls the purse strings. It has appointed school board members that do not have children in the schools or that do not have a connection personally or professionally to the schools. The city leans heavily on its non-profit partners to deliver services, but the decisions still come through the central office, known locally as North Avenue.

Although the state gives the city the lion’s share of its budget, about 70% of its annual budget, it has under-funded schools over the last decade and a half to such an extreme degree, that it has to turn to outside sources for funding. One example has been teachers from Teach for America. These teachers are young, just out of college, and the least expensive to pay for in terms of salary. They do not stay (TFA requires just 2 years of service), and so there is no need to invest in a pension fund for them. The revolving door of Teach for America teachers is detrimental to Baltimore’s students who require experienced teachers, teachers who can teach in a culturally relevant way, and teachers who can build a relationship with their students in order to thrive. A recent study out of Johns Hopkins shows that if Black students have just one Black teacher, they are more likely to persist through high school, and so it is clear that recruitment of teachers of color needs to be high on the list of to-do’s for the Baltimore.

At Harlem Park Elementary/Middle, we saw what happens when young white teachers are left with Black students with whom they do not know how to connect. The teacher was immediately fired for calling her students the “n” word. While that decision was swift, there is still persistent racism across the school district. The police that roam the halls of Baltimore’s schools are not keeping them safer. Video has shown officers to target and even assault students. This kind of behavior happens in other districts with school security, but because there is a police presence in schools, students as young as four are receiving arrest records and being criminalized before they reach the 5th grade.

Although Baltimore has not succumbed to the kind of privatization happening in other cities, which have turned over their schools to private operators (Educational Management Organizations) to deal with funding shortfalls, there is a presence of charter schools in the city. By and large they are run by local organizations and do not make a profit, as some EMO’s do. That said, the school system has still engaged in deals that do not benefit the city’s residents. In its desire for more state funding, city schools agreed to a deal with the state in which it would close 26 schools in exchange for $1 billion in building renovations. That plan is underway, and we are seeing the deleterious effects of school closings on Baltimore’s poorest Black communities. They are losing their community institutions which provided recreational, creative, nutritional, and counseling opportunities in addition to academic ones. These students are being sent to new schools without transportation being provided. They have to traverse through treacherous neighborhoods in many cases to get to schools, and have no guarantee that the school will serve them any better than the previous one did.

Clearly the system we have is not working. In the city as a whole, 28% of adults aged 25 years and older have a college degree (or more) (Ames, 2011), and the city student continue to perform poorly on standardized academic measures. . Of course we know that standardized test scores are tied more to family income than to the impact of any one teacher or school. Not all of the negative outcomes has to do with the school system, with a history of white flight and the presence of a long-standing system of private schools, there is little middle class investment in Baltimore City Schools, leaving the schools hypersegregated. A full 79.3% of students attending attend a school of 90% or more minority enrollment and 44.3% in what has come to be known via the Civil Rights Project as apartheid schools with 99-100% African-American enrollment Black student density is also a term that can be used here (NCES, 2015)  (Ayscue et al, 2013). Having a centralized system combined with a school board that is appointed by the state and mayor of Baltimore that serves poor communities, prevents families’ access to decision-making and limits accountability to the students and families who use the school system. After talking to the families of the city, the Fund for Educational Excellence found that families’ number one concern was that they wanted more of a voice. They did not feel welcomed in the schools or in the central office. They wanted better support for teachers and a more holistic approach to supporting children in schools,  (The Fund, 2014). Yet, these concerns were not being met and are currently not being addressed by the district. Consequently, the city needs a space for families and communities to push back on the system. Chicago has local school councils, New York has community education councils. Baltimore can have these too, one per city quadrant, which would have the power to research, design, and decide about the uses of schools, programs, and testing in their area. These elected bodies can advocate for better schools, more funding, and programs that support students inside and outside of the classroom. While families, students, and communities have to be the ones that define priorities for the city’s education policies, specific proposals to consider in an administration that takes public education as a priority could include:

  1. Creating community education councils that have the power to hire/fire principals and power to sign off on school budgets and curriculum decisions
  2. A full implementation of restorative justice practices in all city schools
  3. Increased and maintained efforts regarding teacher recruitment and retention efforts focused on recruiting teachers of color
  4. Supporting teachers with housing incentives and loan forgiveness
  5. Elimination of contracts with temporary teachers like Teach for America
  6. Targeted and high-quality professional development in culturally relevant practices for teachers in their first three years of teaching;
  7. Increased and enhanced afterschool opportunities to include tutoring and vast enrichment programming along with more professionally supported staff.
  8. Professional development and educational assistance for pre-K through elementary paraprofessionals
  9. Universal high-quality, pre-K education in Baltimore City;
  10. Increasing the fiscal contribution to Baltimore City Schools from the City budget;
  11. Increased funding for Community Schools and a strategy to engage families in leadership development so that they can advocate on their own behalf
  12. A thorough review and public release of the state of facilities (including lead levels in water, presences of mold, and other health concerns) for all school buildings;
  13. A community-led plan for repurposing closed school buildings for community usage (i.e. libraries, recreation centers, community colleges, day care centers)