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Author and political scientist Lester Spence says the discussion around Baltimore’s flagging school system ignores the fundamental priorities of a city that favors corporations over its children

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JAISAL NOOR: So I’m here with Lester Spence. He is the co-director of Africana studies at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. He wrote a recent piece called “Why Baltimore Doesn’t Heat its Schools,” and he notes that much of the discussion around the heating crisis in Baltimore — our viewers will know that schools were shut down for at least two days, some many more, because of a lack of heat and freezing temperatures in Baltimore City — the discussion has been around funding, and whether the state gives enough money, whether the city gives enough money, is it a question of management, how is this money being spent. But there’s a lot missing from that discussion including how some $3.7 billion in public money, in public subsidies, have been given to corporations in various forms over the last several decades, and what impact that’s having.
So I’m here with Lester. Lester, thanks so much for taking the time to speak with us.
LESTER SPENCE: Oh, thanks for following through. I appreciate it.
JAISAL NOOR: So, Lester, there’s a discussion that, it’s not really happening, in the media or in public forums, about the role of public subsidies to corporations that the city has carried forth for decades now at the same time while subsidizing corporations. You know, the mayor just vetoed a $15 minimum wage in Baltimore last year. What is the impact that these policies had on Baltimore and its school system?
LESTER SPENCE: First, I’d correct you just in one way because in Baltimore, one of the things I appreciate about working in Baltimore and living near it is there’s a lot of folks in Baltimore doing the work in public, you know, holding public forums, expanding our conception of what a city’s supposed to do. So, that said, everything else is right, but it’s not like we’re not doing that.
JAISAL NOOR: The discussions are there, but it’s not getting into the mainstream media as it needs to.
LESTER SPENCE: That’s right. So, one way to think about this, I’m actually going to connect this to Black Lives Matter. What Black Lives Matter has done is really focused our attention with laser-like precision on police, on the relationship between police and urban communities in general and then population color, black population specifically. Well, one of the critiques of Black Lives Matter is that it’s been focusing on these spectacular instances of violence. It’s violence that we catch on video and then it’s violence that that type of spectacular act easily lends us to, or easily galvanizes us, stokes our outrage, and it mobilizes us in a certain way.
But what that often obscures is the role of a broader type of violence that’s more slow and more kind of invisible. So, to think about Freddie Gray in Baltimore, if Freddie Gray wasn’t killed in an encounter with police, most likely he would have died from something lead-related, because he lived in lead-lined homes for a lot of his young life, and in fact his family ended up suing the landlord.
So bringing that back to the schools, we’ve got a spectacular instance where we’ve got a picture of kids freezing in schools. And it’s important to note that although that as late as a few days ago I got word that there’s still some schools dealing with this issue, so it’s not solved by any means. But that video, it raises our outrage. It mobilizes folk easily. With the school board meeting the week of, it was packed to overflowing with everybody wanting to know what was going on. What that does is it, if we just focus on that, it obscures all this other kind of economic violence that’s deeply connected to the way that federal policy, state policy, and local policy has shifted our priorities where development initiatives becomes one of the most important policies that a city could pursue.
So it’s not a coincidence that, I think just yesterday, Amazon listed its top 20 sites for its headquarters, and Baltimore was one of the people that was really, you know, trying to throw all types of money at it. Baltimore didn’t make the cut. Detroit threw all types of money at it, you know, my hometown, didn’t make the cut. Newark, Newark put together … Newark in the state of New Jersey put together a package, I think, of $7 billion in public subsidies. They make the cut. Right?
So how does that come back to the schools? What you’ve got is a dynamic where over the last 20, 30 years, at least $3.7 billion has gone from public coffers into private hands for development initiatives. So you’re talking about building M&T Bank Stadium where the Ravens play, a lot of that comes from public money. Camden Yards where the Orioles play, a lot of that comes from public money. The Inner Harbor itself, a lot of that comes from public money. The individual hotels, a lot of the high-end housing, some of the lower-income housing, Under Armor is building a new HQ, a new headquarters.
JAISAL NOOR: A city within a city.
LESTER SPENCE: A city within a city. Kevin Plank’s development program, that’s approximately $600 million in public money, right? And that’s going straight from public money into private hands. That money, every dollar that’s not spent on that priority, is money taken away from other priorities, including but not limited to the public schools.
JAISAL NOOR: But hasn’t this had a trickle-down effect, right? That is the fundamental argument that policymakers have been putting forth on a city, state, and national level. It’s going to trickle down. It’s going to help us all. What’s the track record there?
LESTER SPENCE: That’s so dope, what you did right there, because I was going on really, really long and was about to go into the trickle-down stuff, but actually you coming in actually gives a nice rhythm to the interview. That’s dope. That’s why I like you.
The argument is always that … Well, it’s not always, but particularly since the election of Ronald Reagan, but going back before, you’d say the argument that if you actually give money to private hands, it’ll trickle down, in that high-income earners in corporations can use that money to invest to increase the number of jobs, can increase infrastructure, can increase profits, and then that ends up redounding back upon the city, but it never works that way.
It almost never works that way. The only people that benefit are the … The only entities that benefit are the corporations that get the subsidies, the high-income earners, and then to a lesser extent inasmuch as you’re talking about Baltimore kind of being transformed into a post-industrial tourist city, the creative class that comes to Baltimore to kind of hang out.
JAISAL NOOR: And so we know that, I think it’s some 87% of Baltimore schoolchildren qualify for free or reduced lunches, and talking about East and West Baltimore, the buildings in these areas are 60, 70 years old. They’re literally falling apart. The pipes are bursting. We’re not just talking about the schools here. We’re talking about entire communities that have been, you know, going back to 100 years, segregation, and to redlining … So you see these policies as a continuation of this longer trend.
LESTER SPENCE: Yeah, so one argument could be that what we’re seeing is kind of the new Jim Crow at work. So you take that idea promoted by Michelle Alexander to talk about the prison industrial complex, and you just apply it. Yes, to an extent, inasmuch as if you look at the original redlining map when the federal government got into the housing business, they actually created these maps in order to distinguish places that were solid investments from places that were risky investments. Places that were risky investments almost always had black people in them. In fact, the racial demographics of the neighborhood was one of the key indicators to determine how risky the space was.
So if you layer that map onto today’s map, you find that a lot of problems a city like Baltimore has, a lot of those neighborhoods are the neighborhoods that were redlined back in the day. So, yes, there is some of that, but the challenge is that by solely focusing on that you miss what a number of us call the neoliberal turn. You miss that when Baltimore transitioned from a manufacturing industrial city in the late ’60s, early ’70s, into a post-industrial neoliberal city, there’s all types of priorities that shift, and it becomes even harder for a working-class and middle-income folk to actually make ends meet.
And that does have a racial … There is a racial dynamic in that the population, Baltimore’s schoolchildren not only tend to be poor, they’re mostly black. But it’s not solely a racial dynamic. It’s a race and it’s a class dynamic.
And one more thing, this is a infrastructure issue. We’re talking about the schools, but for real, for real, this is a wider issue. Like, I believe the American Society of Civil Engineers, they routinely grade, give a grade on bridges, roads, and other forms of infrastructure. I think that we’re behind in spending maybe $2.3 trillion on infrastructure, and these are the types of effects that come from something like that.
JAISAL NOOR: And so again, we are live on Facebook, so send me your questions and comments for Lester. We’ll try to get to them, as many of them as possible. And so what do you make of, for example, Governor Larry Hogan’s claim pointing out that Baltimore only gives 10% of its budget to the city schools, which is the lowest contribution in the entire state, out of any jurisdiction in the state, something like 24 jurisdictions, and then advocates in Baltimore are noting that when Martin O’Malley, who was a Democrat, when he froze state contributions, they were linked to inflation, when he froze them, that has amounted to hundreds of millions of dollars the city hasn’t gotten in funding. How much of that do you think is important as part of this conversation?
LESTER SPENCE: Well, so one of the things that I talked about just a little bit in the piece, but you only get so many words, is that Hogan himself ends up … One of the consequences of the development initiatives is that property values are a key indicator that determines how much money a school system gets. So, Baltimore lost out in tens of millions of dollars for its school system because the property values increased so much in the areas that they were developing. The challenge, though, is that they weren’t paying property taxes. So when Hogan gets up and talks about what Baltimore is and isn’t spending, usually he’s soundbiting. So there’s all types of stuff he’s not talking about.
So he’s not talking about the fact, for example, that a lot of people believe that Baltimore spends far too much on police. Baltimore spends, like, $500 million on policing, up from, like, $145 million in 1990, and Hogan’s not going to talk about that because the police are a core constituency. Right? There are all types of other elements they’re not going to talk about, like, to the extent that the money that Baltimore does get in schools, they have to spend more of it on infrastructure development because the schools are so old in comparison to other schools in the county. Then, finally, you’re talking about a city with 600,000 people. Versus, I’m not going to call out any other city by name, versus a smaller city. Baltimore is the largest city in the state, so it has a number of other priorities that are connected to but separate from the schools.
So, easily, because Baltimore’s population is poor, Baltimore’s population has more problems, and it’s deeply urban, it’s incumbent upon the state and the federal government to step in and then it’s incumbent at the local level for local officials to actually revise their priorities such that giving subsidies for private development isn’t so important.
JAISAL NOOR: Now, I’m glad you mentioned the police department because it’s under federal consent decree. There is an ongoing federal investigation onto overtime fraud and police officers that were robbing citizens-
LESTER SPENCE: They just let go of the commissioner today.
JAISAL NOOR: Yeah, and the commissioner just got let go, yet instead of calling for an investigation into that, Larry Hogan is calling for an investigation into mismanagement and malfeasance in the public-school system.
LESTER SPENCE: Yeah, and one thing … So actually I’m going to get a shout out to a guy who was tweeting at me. I’ve known this guy for, like, almost, wow, almost 20 years. So I write this story in the Jacobin, and he hollers back at me. He’s like, “Yo, what about that $60 million of waste?” Right? That $60 million of waste. I’m like, “Okay, I’m talking about $3.7 billion in subsidies, but you’re talking about that waste though?” He’s like, “Well, but that’s not the school budget.” I’m like, “Well, the school budget’s 1.3 billion. $60 million of waste is 4.5%.”
So one question is actually worth interrogating a bit is why does that concept of waste play such an important role in conversations about public goods. We very, very rarely hear people talk about waste when we talk about private subsidies. Like, we should actually think of it as a waste that we spent $3.7 billion in private development and haven’t gotten anything near what we’re supposed to get back as a public. But we don’t think about that as waste.
JAISAL NOOR: That money is sacrosanct. You cannot even question it.
LESTER SPENCE: Right, you don’t even question it. But this money, which is 4.5%, is so important that it’s like that’s the thing you focus on. So one of the things that’s going on is the concept of accountability gets translated in a certain way in the ’60s and ’70s primarily by right-leaning think tanks as a mechanism by which to get people to think about their government but also to get people to be critical of their government.
Now, the thing is, I’m all for being critical of government. Like, that’s something … I believe in accountability. I believe in transparency, but what we have to do is actually put this in context because if we don’t put this in context, we’re left with a dynamic where we’re consistently on public people for spending our money wrongly, and we’re just talking about literally nickels on the dollar, while they’re just giving truckloads of money to private developers.
JAISAL NOOR: And, of course, you have to mention that much of the media, almost all the media, is owned by corporations, and they are the ones that go hand in hand with politicians to drive that narrative. I’ll give you one example. This is our piece that I did for The Real News in the Baltimore Beat about how Sinclair Media, which is owned by the Smith brothers, it is a far-right outlet that openly promotes the Republican party and this right-wing ideology, they have launched an investigative project into the Baltimore schools called Project Baltimore, and this is the narrative that they have been pushing since day one, and this is exactly what politicians like Larry Hogan are citing. And they can’t even get their facts straight and their numbers right, and it’s not just this one example, but this is the narrative that they go back to, and this is now what people want to hear and expect to hear these stories. This is what they’re clamoring for, and the idea that we need to scrutinize our subsidies to developers just seems like you’re coming from Mars. Like, it’s not resonating with anyone because they just haven’t heard it.
LESTER SPENCE: You know, it’s funny because I’m getting ready. Classes start next week, and one of the classes I’m teaching is a class on film, so I’m thinking about what films to show. I’m not showing this film I’m about to talk about, but this reminds me of a scene in Hollywood Shuffle.
Hollywood Shuffle’s a Robert Townsend movie. He does it in order to critique the way that filmmakers in Hollywood, particularly in the ’80s and ’90s, but even now, would routinely relegate black people to stereotypical roles just as they would routinely relegate anybody who wasn’t white to really, really stereotypical roles. And there was this scene where Robert Townsend’s character is surrounded by all these hard-knock criminals, right? And instead of picking on them, he picks on the midget.
There’s a midget in the group. Nope. He picks on the really shortest person in the group, the person who doesn’t look like he could take him. Like, “You want some? You want some?” And that’s what we’re talking about. It’s like rather than sending that critique towards powerful developers, towards financial capital, it’s like what you do is you put your critique on teachers, on local teachers, on local principals, people who are trying to make ends meet. Something I didn’t even, I could have spent a lot more time writing about but didn’t, and it’s also part of this larger economic violence story, is how many teachers are having to come out of their pockets routinely to provide for the kids.
Right, so one of my girls, one of my really close friends here, she’s not in a school where she has to do this anymore, but she spent five, six hundred dollars a year, not being reimbursed, on things in order to provide for the kids.
JAISAL NOOR: You’re talking about basic supplies, like paper, and just-
LESTER SPENCE: Basic supplies. Yup.
JAISAL NOOR: You know, pencils, and I think by one study, the average teacher spends close to a thousand dollars a year nationwide, so it’s not just in Baltimore, but it’s across the county.
LESTER SPENCE: Yup, yup, yup, and in fact I remember reading a story about my hometown where people were asked to bring in toilet paper because the bathrooms didn’t have toilet paper. And then the media focuses on that story, and rather than the story being they don’t have enough resources, we need to put more resources into the schools, the story ends up being they don’t know what they’re doing, they don’t know how to govern, and then from that it’s easy to make that argument because you’re talking about black populations. Then from that they make the argument that we should take more resources away from them and we should move more towards private solutions rather than public ones.
JAISAL NOOR: And that is a huge story in Maryland because Maryland is one of the few, if only, states that actually has a charter school system that is fully accountable and transparent. All schools are unionized. Charter schools can only be authorized by their local school districts.
LESTER SPENCE: Yeah, that’s right.
JAISAL NOOR: So the backdrop to this crisis is that last year Governor Hogan tried to totally scuttle this, and call for increased accountability, by totally gutting Maryland’s charter school law. So the backdrop for all this happening is that they’re calling for accountability, and their form of accountability is actually far less transparency, and you see the charter school scandals in places like Ohio, in Florida, in other states, Pennsylvania-
JAISAL NOOR: And it’s just … If you want accountability, that’s not how you’re going to achieve it.
LESTER SPENCE: Yeah, so they’re thinking … To use their argument, or to make their argument, to be charitable to their argument, they’re thinking that accountability is the market. So once you just open it up to the market, the market will be the mechanism. But no, that’s not how it works. I mean, we know. So Maryland is one of the states that has the most robust set of regulations for charter schools. Michigan has the least robust set of regulations for charter schools.
JAISAL NOOR: Thanks to Betsy DeVos, our education secretary.
LESTER SPENCE: Yeah, yup, and Governor Snider. Their schools are horribly mismanaged. You have all types of evidence of massive corruption, and then on top of that, they don’t produce any of the academic outcomes that they say they’re going to produce. They’re actually worse than the public school regime that they replaced. Right. So, when Hogan is like, “Okay, we don’t want this regulation. We don’t want public accountability. What we want is market accountability,” he knows the outcome he’s going to get.
JAISAL NOOR: Yeah. Michigan schools are worst in the nation for student achievement, and they’ve had 20 years of these reforms that DeVos personally spent millions of dollars putting through.
LESTER SPENCE: That’s right. That’s right.
JAISAL NOOR: All right. Lester Spence. Thank you so much for joining us.
LESTER SPENCE: Thanks for having me. It’s always good to be here.

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