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BALTIMORE PARENTS MOVE TO RE-OPEN SCHOOL FUNDING LAWSUIT

By Wendy Lecker

On March 7, 2019, the plaintiffs in a long-running Maryland school funding lawsuit, Bradford v. Maryland State Board of Education, filed a petition to re-open the case in the face of persistent and severe State underfunding of the Baltimore City schools. The plaintiffs are represented by the ACLU of Maryland, the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, and the law firm, Baker Hostetler, which is providing legal services pro bono.

Bradford was first filed in 1994 by parents of students in the Baltimore City school district, claiming that State underfunding of their schools violated students’ right to an adequate education under the Maryland Constitution. In 1996, the Circuit Court granted partial summary judgment to the plaintiffs, ruling that there was no factual dispute “that the public school children in Baltimore City are not being provided with an education that is adequate when measured by contemporary educational standards.” Before a trial on causation and remedy, the parties entered into a consent decree. The court retained jurisdiction to ensure the state’s constitutional compliance.

On three occasions after entry of the consent decree – in 2000, 2002 and 2004 – the court found the State had not fulfilled its constitutional obligation. The court ordered the State to adequately fund the Baltimore schools, both in terms of operational costs and school facilities. In 2002, after Maryland had enacted an overhaul of the its finance system, the court directed the State to fully fund the new formula to comply with its constitutional mandate. In so doing, the court found that increased education standards likely necessitated funding levels even above the new formula.  

However, the State failed to fully fund the formula. Two recent analyses, one by Maryland’s Department of Legislative Services and one commissioned by the State Department of Education, found a massive gap in state funding. Baltimore City students have been deprived of $2 billion of funds to which they are constitutionally entitled.

In petitioning to re-open the Bradford consent decree, the plaintiffs presented detailed evidence of the impact of State underfunding on essential resources in the Baltimore City district. For example, the district has a serious teacher shortage, with nearly 500 fewer teachers than it had just three years ago. Student-teacher ratios are the highest in the state. The district employs only 81 guidance counselors for 80,000 students. There are only 62 librarians for a district with over 150 schools.  Fifty-five percent of Baltimore students have no music classes. Of thirty-nine high schools, only twenty-three offer AP or IB classes. 

School facilities have deteriorated with conditions that are not only inadequate, but a threat to the health and safety of students, parents and staff.  In the most recent comprehensive survey, 85% of Baltimore schools were rated in “poor” or “very poor” condition. Last winter, students in over half of all public schools in the city attended class in rooms that were without heat or with limited heat.  As a result, over the course of a two-week period, over 60 schools were forced to close. This past summer, over 70 schools again were forced to close; this time, because classrooms had no air conditioning.

These severe deprivations in essential resources form the backdrop for low student outcomes in the district. Baltimore students score lower than their counterparts nationally and across the state on almost every assessment and college entrance test. The district’s graduation rate is 17 points lower than the state average, and its dropout rate is nearly double the state average. Thirty-seven percent of Baltimore students are chronically absent.

Like many urban districts across the country, Baltimore serves an extremely high proportion of poor students, students who need to learn English in school, and students with disabilities. Over 86% are eligible for free and reduced-price meals – the highest percentage in the state. The district has the highest "at risk student index" – the combined percentage of low income and ELL students and students eligible for special education services – in the state. The education right guaranteed by the Maryland Constitution has been interpreted by the courts to require additional resources “to minimize the impact of undeniable and inevitable demographic and environmental disadvantages on any given child.”

The plaintiffs’ petition also notes that almost 80% of Baltimore students are African-American. Statewide, fifty-three percent of African-American students attend underfunded schools, as compared with just eight percent of white students. State underfunding has a disproportionate impact on students of color in Maryland.

The Bradford plaintiffs are asking the court to declare that current funding levels violate the State Constitution and previous court orders. They are also seeking an order for the State to develop a comprehensive plan for full constitutional compliance, including remedying the aggregate past shortfalls in funding as well as ensuring adequate funding for operation, instruction and facilities in the Baltimore City schools.

For more information about Bradford v. Maryland State Board of Education, visit: https://www.aclu-md.org/en/bradford

 

Wendy Lecker is a Senior Attorney at Education Law Center

 

Press Contact:

Sharon Krengel
Policy and Outreach Director
skrengel@edlawcenter.org
973-624-1815, x 24