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With Historic Law, Maryland Offers Model to Address National Problem of Inequity in School Facilities

Susan Goering,
ACLU of Maryland
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May 16, 2013

There is a hopeful story being written today in Baltimore City, a story that began with an all-too-familiar plot: school buildings without sufficient heat, air conditioning, adequate lighting or drinking water—perennial barriers to learning that most children and teachers in Baltimore City Public Schools have had to deal with daily. Sadly, lack of such basic necessities plagues many urban school systems like Baltimore, where poverty reigns with over 85 percent of the students eligible for free and reduced price meals. Victims of false economy, urban school buildings continue to deteriorate because the current funding model can only support Band-Aid repairs to the crumbling buildings, as opposed to construction of new, efficient buildings.

In urban districts around the country, there is no extra money to make even the most critical repairs, much less build new schools. The children taught in these buildings have the highest incidence of childhood obesity and asthma and the greatest challenges to educational success. The problem is exacerbated because the buildings cannot support basic learning tools like computers or science labs that students need to meet core curriculum requirements. Meanwhile their peers in more affluent communities are attending new schools with the tools and technology to give them a 21st century education.

The ACLU of Maryland believes that these deficiencies run counter to our state constitution. In 1994 we filed a lawsuit on behalf of Baltimore’s public school students, Bradford v. Maryland State Board of Education, arguing that Maryland’s Constitution guarantees children– particularly those most at risk due to poverty–a “thorough and efficient” education. The judge agreed with us and since then, we have been working year in and year out to make sure the state lives up to this promise to all children.

Today, the ACLU of Maryland is proud to stand with Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley as he signs the Baltimore City Public School Construction and Revitalization Act of 2013. This historic law will fund $1 billion in new and fully renovated schools for some of the poorest communities in the country, and represents the largest investment in Baltimore’s school buildings in Maryland history. This new chapter is a culmination of more than a decade of work on inequitable school facilities by the ACLU of Maryland’s Education Reform Project, and has been hailed as a model solution to a problem that plagues nearly every poor urban school district in the nation.

Under the model promoted by the ACLU of Maryland in our 2010 reports, “Buildings for Academic Excellence,” and “A Proposal to Finance a Full Scale Modernization of Baltimore City Public School Facilities” new and existing funding streams are combined to leverage $1 billion in capital up front, using a third-party quasi-governmental authority to finance bonds and oversee construction. The law signed today will commit funds from the city, state, and school system to build or fully renovate 50+ schools over the next six years. This innovative model upends the traditional school construction funding model by building new or fully renovated schools on a compressed construction timeline, but paying for them over 30 years. After some of the worst city school facilities are addressed in the first phase, other sources of revenue will be needed to finish the full $2.4 billion construction plan.

The ACLU of Maryland pursued this successful campaign by combining research, policy proposals and analysis, organizing, legislative advocacy, and working with community and school groups in the Baltimore Education Coalition to highlight the need for a solution to an intractable problem.

This visionary solution is a smarter way to use state and local dollars. Doing the wholesale renovations will allow school districts to take advantage of existing low interest and construction costs while realizing the economies of scale that come with bulk purchasing and building. In the long run, school systems like Baltimore City will save money by replacing old, dilapidated buildings with state-of-the-art schools that are safer, healthier, and promote better learning.

While every school system has its own unique funding structures, hopefully other struggling school districts, cities, and states can learn from this innovative model and write a happier ending for their students, too.

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