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Baltimore city public schools underfunded by $705M, lawsuit claims

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The Baltimore City Public Schools central administration offices.

A coalition of public school parents joined by civil rights organizations and a national law firm are asking a city circuit court judge to issue a summary judgment between $442 million and $705 million to address long-term state funding gaps in Baltimore City Public Schools. The ACLU of Maryland alongside the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and law firm BakerHostetler filed a motion recently in Baltimore city circuit court a case that dates back three decades. The ACLU alleged in a mid-1990s lawsuit that the Maryland State Board of Education underfunded schools in Baltimore City and infringed on the constitutionally adequate education students require.

In 2019, a judge re-opened the lawsuit after ACLU attorneys argued a previous deal with the state to increase funding was not upheld. The entire Baltimore City Public Schools annual budget is $1.6 billion, additional funding from the state would be a major change.

“It is unfortunate, it's taken so long to remedy this,” said Arielle Humphries, attorney with the Legal Defense Fund.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs argued it would take more than a year to improve the educational system.

“Many years of adequate funding will be needed to undo the work of decades of disinvestment and rebuild faculties, staffs, and facilities,” according to the lawsuit.

Students of parents from the original lawsuit have long since left the school system but there are new parents who are plaintiffs in the case.

“It's now another generation of students and parents still dealing with the same issues that were presented in 1994,” said Humphries.

A Maryland Attorney General’s office spokesperson declined to comment for this story, citing ongoing litigation.

Decades of underfunding has led to a lack of experienced teachers, large class sizes, a shortage of guidance counselors, librarians and teachers’ aides, not enough regular building maintenance, inadequate heat and no air conditioning in some schools, according to the lawsuit.

Advocates are asking a judge to decide that the Maryland State Board of Education is not complying with the requirements under the state constitution and court’s prior decisions, according to the recently filed motion seeking a summary judgment.

In 1996, a Baltimore city circuit court judge Joseph Kaplan ruled that the state constitution does mandate that children receive quality education. That same year Baltimore city and the state of Maryland entered into an agreement with the ACLU to spend tens of millions more on public schools each year and restructure the school board among other requirements in a consent decree.

In 2002, the state created the Thornton Commission, which built a new education system financial formula after lawmakers passed the Bridge to Excellence in Public Schools Act to address school funding shortfalls. The Thornton Commission’s new funding formula was phased in by 2008.

But after the Great Recession began in 2008 “the state of Maryland abandoned a commitment to equity and stopped adjusting the funding formula for inflation, leading to millions of lost funds for districts like Baltimore City,” according to the lawsuit.

In 2021, state lawmakers passed the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future bill, also known as Kirwan, which provides a new plan for public education funding in the state. But Humphries argues that children entering kindergarten won’t reap the full benefits from the Kirwan Commission until their junior year of high school because it’s phased in over a 12 year period. And that if the state economy stalls, the state can abandon the deal.

Baltimore City Public Schools describes Kirwan as a “recalibration of an outdated funding formula that has historically underfunded our district.”

While Kirwan is projected to increase public school funding to tackle building maintenance and support students with disabilities among other goals, the civil rights attorneys argue that it doesn’t fully address funding needs.

“We don't want another generation of students to go through Baltimore City Public Schools without the adequate funding to receive the education that they need to graduate and then be successful in their lives and careers,” said Legal Defense Fund attorney Humphries.

Zshekinah Collier is WYPR’s 2022-2023 Report for America Corps Member, where she covers Education.
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