Improving Baltimore’s Schools Will Take More Than Just Money

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Baltimore’s schools need to be fundamentally transformed, says Lawrence Grandpre of Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, and meaningful change requires focusing on the needs of black parents and community members

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We recently asked Lawrence Grandpre of Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle to weigh in on the funding debate around Maryland’s schools. Since this interview was taped, Governor Larry Hogan released his own proposal for using casino revenue to fund Maryland schools.

LAWRENCE GRANDPRE: Lawrence Grandpre, director of research at Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle.

JAISAL NOOR: So, currently in Annapolis, there’s two proposals to fix an issue with the casino funding, not actually increasing and giving additional money to public schools as was promised when it was passed. There’s a proposal by Maggie McIntosh that would phase that in over four years, and it would be part of a ballot measure. And then Mary Washington has a proposal that would be just a bill passed this year, and it would put that money, like $500 million in, starting next year. What are your thoughts about these two proposals?

LAWRENCE GRANDPRE: Well, I think part of the concern might be limiting it to an ad hoc solution, when you need a structural change. So, to the extent that some folks may be wary about just saying, “We’re going to toss all the casino money in there as soon as possible.” It might be because the funding formula for Baltimore City public schools is pretty complex, and it deals with court cases and questions of enforcement.

So, I think you’re looking at a more structural solution that might be needed, because simply putting more money into a school system doesn’t guarantee superior results. It’s a question of, is there accountability for the money? Where is it going towards? And do we have a sustainable long-term funding source that isn’t just dependent on casino or the whims of the governor, but can you actually create an environment where there is some predictability in the funding, and the funding begins to match the actual need?

JAISAL NOOR: The governor and outlets like Project Baltimore, they argue that the schools aren’t underfunded, that it’s just an issue of accountability. How do you respond to that?

LAWRENCE GRANDPRE: I think it’s complicated. I think some of the numbers that folks use, you can go into the weeds and have differing opinions. So, I know if you took the amount of money Baltimore City gets from the state, well some people point out that Baltimore City isn’t able to supplement that money with local tax revenues. So, while they may be getting a lot of money from the state, they have so little money coming in from the city, the actual money getting to the kids, that actually isn’t this bonanza the Republicans talk about.

I mean, we’ve been pretty consistent that you need to have a vision of accountability, but to the community, in terms of actually producing a framework for educational results that the community finds sufficient. Which may include curriculum, it may include incorporating local community-based organizations into schools, it may include diversity programming.

And that typically isn’t talked about in the funding debates. They talk a lot about iPads and air-conditioning, and those things are good. But when you’re looking at results in a way that actually meets with what the community is talking about, the actual parents and the majority minority, and 80-90% of the people in Baltimore City public schools are African-American, their conversation is a bit different than what the advocates and the politicians are talking about, and I think that that needs to be a central part of the conversation.

JAISAL NOOR: And finally, the Kirwan Commission is likely to make suggestions around education funding. They’ve already said that they’re really looking at considering poverty and spending more money for high-poverty areas, whether it’s in Baltimore or other parts of the state. Do you think that Kirwan is going to lead to an appropriate fix to help address some of the underfunding that occurs in Maryland schools?

LAWRENCE GRANDPRE: I think you have to look at the result, but also the process. The result of Kirwan is probably going to be more money for traditionally impoverished school districts, which is hard to argue against. I think the process of Kirwan is really the problem. You have a board that’s appointed, without community accountability, allowed to represent [inaudible 00:03:42] of white men and folks from the more technocratic vision of school reform that it kind of fits in. But for a lot of more traditional non-profits are talking about getting funding for the existing after-school programs, really solidifying the status quo, beefing up the status quo.

That is not what parents want. And it’s not something that many folks who are benefiting from the status quo, like to talk about. And so, there needs to be a fine line between any critique of the status quo being seen as capitulating to a Republican governor. Or Fox News. There’s plenty of space to critique the status quo, and say that Kirwan is just a means to an end.

The means is the money, but the end needs to be comprehensive community accountable educational reform. And I think that in the conversation on the means, and giving to the Kirwan formula, the actual process of not including the community, is producing an end result that may just solidify the status quo.

And I don’t think the status quo is underfunded. I think it’s fundamentally broken. I think it’s fundamentally off-track. I think most parents would agree with that, and we need to see the funding get the means to an … Not the solidification of the existing end, but a new end. A new path for education, which I think means we’re going to have to shift the conversation.

JAISAL NOOR: Awesome. Thanks so much.

LAWRENCE GRANDPRE: Thank you.