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Pt.2 Lester Spence and Marc Steiner discuss possible fixes to the crisis facing Baltimore public schools

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore.

We’re continuing our discussion about public education in the city. And now joining us again to discuss all of this, first of all, is Lester Spence. He’s a contributor to the book We Are Many. He’s an associate professor of political science and Africana studies at Johns Hopkins and author of the book Stare in the Darkness: The Limits of Hip Hop and Black Politics.

Also joining us is Marc Steiner. He hosts the widely acclaimed (see? “widely acclaimed”—it actually is) public radio news and interview program The Marc Steiner Show, which you can hear on WEAA 88.9 FM here in Baltimore. Thank you both for joining us.


MARC STEINER, RADIO HOST, WEAA 88.9 FM: It’s good to be here.

JAY: So, Lester, let’s kick it off with you. So let’s say tomorrow you get appointed head of—you’re now in control of education, public education in Baltimore, and you’ve got a majority of support on city council, and the mayor says, Lester, I’ll back you. What would you do?

SPENCE: Well, there are a few things I would do. Right? So one thing I would do is Baltimore City schools are undercapacity—If I’m right, it’s something like 60 percent stands out as far as either 60 percent of them have—people don’t really have a full house, or in general the system is 60 percent undercapacity, which means they have to shut down certain schools. So it becomes a zero-sum competition.

What I would actually do is—if you think about these schools as neighborhood public spaces, one of the first things I would do is I would open them outside the school hours. Right? So a certain amount of time, it would be open for school, but then, after that, whether it’s quote-unquote “training” or whether it’s public meetings, whether it’s gym space for folks to work out in, etc., meeting space, you have to transform these schools to institutions that actually meet the needs of those neighborhoods. Right? So that’s the kind of infrastructure thing I would do.

What I would do as far as curriculum is I would transform the curriculum to build—and I don’t like that word build, but it’s shorthand—to kind of build citizens, like, citizens, you know, to—. If we think about these folks, like, these kids are in school from five to 18, five days a week, you know, nine months out of the year. Imagine what we could—what they could do as citizens if we taught them how to engage in the world politically, right, actually how to be citizens.

And the thing is is there are a number of ways to teach core concepts of math, of science, and literacy through that project, right? Along those same lines, every school would have, like, a community garden, and kids would learn from kindergarten how to grow and tend their own gardens and how to grow and tend their own food and to create a certain type of relationship with the environment.

So just the—if you just think about just those two things, if I only could do two things, right, the one is you make those schools public institutions and make them open them up to the community, like, year-round, 24/7, and then the second thing is reframe the curriculum and gear the curriculum towards making them citizens, like, local global citizens.

JAY: I guess you could add to that community center cheap, affordable daycare.


JAY: I just don’t understand how anyone’s supposed to hold a job and get home and deal with a kid at three or four o’clock.

SPENCE: Yeah, real talk.

JAY: Yeah. So, okay, Marc, you’re now in charge of education. What would you do?

STEINER: Well, [crosstalk] let me—first let me just say that the mayor in Baltimore has no control over the schools. It’s out of the mayor’s control. It’s an independent body. The school board’s appointed by the governor with mayoral input, but the mayor has no control over the schools of Baltimore.

JAY: So is the school board accountable to the state?

STEINER: Yes, it’s accountable to the state.

SPENCE: And that’s a new thing. That’s [crosstalk]

STEINER: It’s been like that for a while. You know. So they took it out of the hands of the city. And so [crosstalk]

JAY: And why did they take it out of the hands of the city?

STEINER: The schools were falling apart. And, you know, there was a whole big move for the state to take over complete control, which they didn’t do. That was a big battle that took place in Baltimore.

SPENCE: Now, real quick, but when you say “a while,” what does that mean?

JAY: Yeah, how long ago?

SPENCE: ‘Cause I know that happens in Detroit, but it happens in Detroit in—like, between ’95 and 2000.

STEINER: The exact year when it stopped being under mayoral control I don’t remember, but it was, like, under the Schaefer years. I don’t have the exact year in my head.

SPENCE: So, like, in the ’90s.


SPENCE: Yeah. So that’s what—it was around the same time, yeah.

STEINER: But having said that—and what Lester was talking about I completely agree with, is a concept called community schools. And that concept is to keep schools open all day long. So in the evening it becomes evening classes, it becomes facilities for the community. And the whole notion of community schools was something people pushed in Baltimore. But nobody was able to do it. And they really wanted that to happen. There was a movement in the city to do that, and it didn’t happen. And it should happen.

The other thing is Baltimore has the largest, one of the most complex private school systems in the country. And one of the things I’ve always maintained is that what public school students deserve is what private schools get. And that means that parents and students pick the kind of school they want their kid to go to, so that if you wanted your child to be in a Montessori school or a Waldorf school or a more progressive school, those schools exist for your kid to go to. If you want your child to be in an all-male school, all-female school, you have that choice.

JAY: But all within the public system.

SPENCE: But that should be our public system. And each facility, you have to fight for billions of dollars to redo our schools so that the facilities match the kids’ needs, so that every school has a swimming pool, every school has outdoor facilities, every school has a lab, every school has things they need to be a full school. And arts are infused into the curriculum of every school in Baltimore City. So every child has a chance to kind of—to be in the arts at whatever level they want to be in the arts, that you have the opportunities for kids to really learn.

I would get rid of standardized testing completely. I would dump it in the trash. That there’s no—there are no private or parochial schools in Baltimore where kids have to take a standardized test to prove they’re learning. That’s not how you deal with it. I would get rid of all those tests and be done with them. That, and I would cut down class size. I would say, we are going to pay our teachers more money, and we’re going to have teachers who want to be in the system be there, and to radically reform all of that.

JAY: So the—I mean, obviously, people watching and listening to all this are saying, okay, fine, so where’s the money going to come from.

STEINER: Well, you know, I mean, we spend a lot of money on our schools, and part of it is how we want to spend the money on our schools. Part of it has to do with building an infrastructure. America should be spending money on infrastructure

JAY: Now, didn’t the mayor just recently announce something like $1 billion to go into public schools? I’m not sure where she’s getting the money from.

STEINER: She did. I don’t know—this will be a coming battle in the upcoming legislative session. That’s going to be a—that’s one of the pivotal issues.

JAY: The money has to come from the state. The city doesn’t have this $1 billion. Is that right?

STEINER: Correct. Correct. I mean, when we have what we call [incompr.] Annapolis Summit that I host with the—on the first day of the session with the governor, the president of the Senate, and the speaker of the House, we have a two-hour session that we’ll get The Real News to play that—that’s one of the questions that they have to answer, how are they going to pay for our school system.

JAY: One of the things—we’ve done a lot of stories about public education on The Real News, and, you know, you start to wonder whether, you know, the powers that be, the elites, whether they’re in Baltimore or nationally, actually want an educated ordinary population. There has to be some political intent. I mean, you know, maybe, you know, the fact that the schools to some extent or some schools to a large extent are kind of, you know, babysitting services and/or jails of sorts, and kids in Baltimore talk about, you know, this prison—school-to-prison pipeline, and that this is all part of the way especially the urban poor areas are visualized, that it is a question of just keep that area under control, we don’t really care whether they’re educated.

SPENCE: Well, I’m going to complicate that a bit. I would say—I would work on the assumption that people want good schools, right? But they’re too—.

JAY: People meaning parents? Or—.

SPENCE: I’m going to assume everybody. There’s only an extreme group that doesn’t want good schools, right? Only an extreme group, right?

But this is—I’m going to complicate that in a few ways. One is that when you come to the definition of what a good school is, you’ve got very different perspectives, and people with power tend to win out to the extent those differences, those different perspectives clash. Right? That’s the first thing.

But the second thing is that there’s this assumption that we’re talking about a zero-sum game and there are very, very limited resources. So even though we all want good schools, the reality is that only—that we can only have a certain number of schools in the pot. And to the extent we individualize learning, that is, to the extent that we talk about individual parents making choices about individual kids, that dynamic naturally leads to a dynamic where we’re saying, okay, well, since we only can have so many good schools, we’re going to put that responsibility on the parents to choose, and then the parents themselves, you know, who are now competing with other parents for those slots, they’re now kind of responsibilized, so to speak, and they’re made to do all the heavy lifting, and then you end up having start cuts, where some parents know what to do and have the hookups, know how to get their kids into schools, and then everybody else has to kind of fend for themselves.

JAY: Yeah. I mean, it seems completely structurally built in that way now, where you have this kind of lottery system, but merits, so you can say, yes, a selection of the smartest kids will get a decent education, and we’ll kind of write off everybody else.


STEINER: Like, and the kids are written off. I mean, part of it is the battle going on about not wanting to invest in the public sector in America. And the public educational system is part of the foundation of that public sector.

And, you know, we—this is a very different world we’re facing. I mean, this is a thing that I’ve—a conversation I’ve had many times with people in Baltimore. Friends of mine who came out of the old black middle class in Baltimore who I grew up with and their parents were in the public school system at a time when the only school in Baltimore for black folks was Douglass Senior High School.

JAY: Yeah, that’s right.

STEINER: Later they started Carver Vocational-Tech and Dunbar, but for a long time Douglass was the only place that black folks could go to high school. And there were no black schools like that in Harford County or any other county, so this was the place. So I said to them [incompr.] my friends, you know, when you were in school, I mean, so how many kids were in school? Four hundred? A thousand? So what did that mean? That meant that thousands of black children never went to high school. Then they went into the steel mills and they became porters and they had jobs in the box factory or they drove a hack or they did whatever, became plumbers, electricians, carpenters.

And so when I—you know, when earlier, like, I wasn’t laying the onus on—in the last segment, I wasn’t laying the onus on the people for having a bad school system, but what I’m saying is the history of our schools are such that we’re still in the mold of training and putting kids in schools that were back in the ’40s and ’50s [incompr.] at all.

And so you’ve got to realize you’ve got these incredibly smart kids in the poorest neighborhoods who are not being given an educational shot at growing their minds. That’s the—they’re not growing their minds. They’re putting them in these classes, they teach them how to read and write, they have direct instruction, which is a big debate [incompr.] but they have—they teach by rote, you learn how to read, you learn how to write, you learn how to add one and one, but nobody’s taught how to think critically and no one’s given creative projects to do. They’re not being able—they’re not given that spirit.

What they’re afraid of: they don’t want a population of creative, analytical minds that will say, how come I don’t have a job, why is my society looking like this. And that’s the fear.

JAY: Yeah. I think one of the most remarkable pieces of that (and it’s happening all across North America) is the lack of teaching of history. I mean, I talk to kids here, and, I mean, most of them don’t even know that Baltimore was an occupied city by the military in the late 1960—.

STEINER: In the Civil War.

JAY: No, here during 1968-69. There were National Guard tanks on the streets in Baltimore. They have no idea about that history of their own city, never mind—I mean, I was also—.

STEINER: Or the civil rights history of Baltimore.

JAY: Yeah, or the slave—in Fell’s Point, they used to have shops along Fell’s Point buying slaves to—domestic slaves, to bring them down to the South to work in the cotton fields. And as you were saying, there were so many free African Americans here, they were kidnapping free blacks and selling them into slavery to go work because of the invention of [crosstalk]

STEINER: Frederick Douglass owned his own dock company in Fell’s Point. I mean, you know, he was a—that this was—you know, that this was—.

JAY: But this whole idea, this lack of teaching history—.

SPENCE: Yeah, yeah. I mean, so one argument is that—so there’s this argument about this larger job argument. It’s like, well, these kids have a choice between working at McDonald’s or working in a drug gang. Right? The thing is—and this is—it’s funny, but it’s tragic—is the kids that are being produced or the type of education kids are getting—. You need to know math to be a good drug dealer. You know what I mean? I mean you need to have—you need to know all types of things to be a good drug dealer. Right? And some of those things you really can’t learn. So you can’t really—so you either are kind of built in to kind of really beat somebody down, you know, or you’re kind of not. I mean, you can—. But things like math, I mean, so if you’re graduating, if you’re coming out of the high schools and you’re not able to do math, you can’t even be a good drug dealer. You know. So what is there for you? What is there for you? So the challenge that Baltimore—.

JAY: Prison.

SPENCE: Yeah, that’s it. And so we talk about the school-to-prison pipeline. It’s like it’s built—it’s a natural consequence. But then the prisons are costing so much that you’re even now seeing pushback from conservatives in some cases against the prisons. So we’re going to—this is the issue that we’re going to have to come to some type of resolution on fairly soon, because we’re close to the breaking point.

JAY: Okay. So this is just the beginning of a discussion about what’s going on in Baltimore, and we’re going to keep doing this every few weeks. And as I said, we’re going to do more investigative stories. We’re going to be doing, in a few months, town hall debates. So please join us for our ongoing discussion about what to do about Baltimore.


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