Freezing Classrooms Highlight Systemic Underfunding of Baltimore Schools

Councilman and former teacher Zeke Cohen says the “inhumane conditions facing students in Baltimore Schools is a crisis of enduring injustice”

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Story Transcript

JAISAL NOOR: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jaisal Noor in Baltimore. Freezing temperatures in classrooms across Baltimore City Public Schools has sparked outrage across the country. I spoke with City Council member and former public school teacher, Zeke Cohen.

ZEKE COHEN: What I’m seeing in a resolution I’m introducing today in the City Council is that this is a crisis of enduring injustice. That when I was a teacher, and this was a several years ago, we didn’t have heat, we didn’t have air conditioning, we didn’t have drinkable running water because there was lead in the pipes and those conditions in our schools persist until today.

So, my biggest concern over the past week was beyond seeing these images of children huddled in freezing classrooms attempting to learn, beyond hearing the stories of young people not able to get their school lunches. I’m worried about what happens tomorrow. I’m worried about every single child in our schools, in our school system, who is guaranteed by the Maryland state constitution a right to an education and yet, so often, that right has been denied.

My biggest concern is that we need to be educating our children for the 21st century economy and I am deeply concerned when I see school buildings that are literally falling apart. This is not about mismanagement. The schools have been thoroughly audited again, and again and again. This is about inequity and we need to call it what it is.

JAISAL NOOR: I’ve heard a lot of people say, including yourself, that this problem has been known about for a long time. Why has it taken so long for there to be action on it?

ZEKE COHEN: Yeah, and that is the question we should all be asking. I will simply say that the children I know in private schools aren’t in classrooms huddled, freezing, burning hot in the summer. The kids I know in Montgomery County, who I know and love, aren’t experiencing these horrendous conditions. So, we should all ask why is it that the lives and the academic wellbeing of children in Baltimore is worth less than children in other municipalities in our state or in private schools in our city?

We all need to join together in this moment and work together for the wellbeing of our kids. I can’t believe that anyone would want to play politics with the lives of schoolchildren. This is about everyone, the council, the mayor, Governor Hogan, our legislators, should all be coming together to fix this crisis, and call it what it is, which is deep, enduring injustice, not mismanagement.

JAISAL NOOR: And so, you’ve alluded to the comments of Governor Larry Hogan. He has repeated a common refrain of his, that the schools have received record funding and he wants to know where the money is going. Today he promised an additional 2.5 million for building repairs but he’s also called for increased oversight of the public schools here. How do you, talk more about your response to that.

ZEKE COHEN: Sure. So, I think Governor Hogan should follow the advice of his own Maryland State Department of Education that, in a report, lifted up a 290 million dollar shortfall that the state has shorted our kids since 2012. That, to me, is the number we should be focused on. I’m glad he’s going to give two and a half million to fix this immediate crisis but the larger systemic conditions facing our schools are going to require much, much, much more.

And again, I would have him take a look at the external audits that have been done by city schools. The narrative of mismanagement and money being lost, or money having to be returned is simply not correct. It is way more complex than that. The IAC, in its formula –

JAISAL NOOR: What is that?

ZEKE COHEN: The Interagency Collaborative mechanism that funds schools in the state of Maryland, that does school facilities projects. The challenge there is, when you go for partial funding for projects, like Baltimore has to do, because we don’t have the capital to back up major projects, we end up having to return some of those funds because the cost of projects escalates and continues to go up. And so, what we’re asking for was –

JAISAL NOOR: And so, you’re referring to The Baltimore Sun article that exposed how the city schools have had to return 66 million dollars over the last 8 years.

ZEKE COHEN: Yup.

JAISAL NOOR: And it didn’t really address the question of why that’s happening, and so you’re addressing that right now.

ZEKE COHEN: Yeah, yeah. And there’s a great op-ed by Cheryl Casciani who’s a school board member, who talks about how it is actually the fiscally responsible thing to do, for Baltimore to fully fund these projects. But we have not been able to do that because of how the state’s funding formula works. And so I know, in talking to Delegate McIntosh, that is one of the things that she’s looking at in this legislative session, is to fix the funding formula so that our schools don’t get penalized for being low-wealth.

JAISAL NOOR: Critics also raised the issue that Baltimore City contributes the least amount to its public schools out of any jurisdiction in the state of Maryland, something that Larry Hogan often raises. Other counties spend much, much more on their local school systems. Should Baltimore City be paying more? Critics also raise the point that we spend some 500 million on our police department, which has been riddled by corruption scandals.

ZEKE COHEN: Sure. So, let me answer it this way. Baltimore has unique challenges that other municipalities do not have. For example, the level of concentrated poverty in our city necessitates that we spend a lot on things like social services, housing, infrastructure. We’re seeing infrastructure all over the place that is literally falling apart. So, on the one hand, I want to be clear that it’s not a one-for-one comparison. When you look at a place like Baltimore City and compare it to Howard County or Montgomery County, we as a city, a small, dense city of about 630,000 people, have a lot of challenges that they do not have. On the other hand, I think it is a legitimate critique to say that we should, as a municipality, spend more on our kids.

JAISAL NOOR: Richard Rothstein, who is a fellow with the Economic Policies Institute and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, had a new book out last year about how it was unconstitutional and illegal government policies that segregated cities like Baltimore. And those are, the hypersegregation, as you mentioned, of low-income families and communities of color, are a major burden to learning, and to education because you’re concentrating students that need more in these small spaces. And so, because as a result of city and state and federal policies, should additional resources be spent in correcting those unconstitutional policies?

ZEKE COHEN: Absolutely. So, the sad reality is that Baltimore was a pioneer in racial housing segregation, and we have fought in this council, and in previous councils, to reverse some of those policies. I was just in a meeting today about our water system, and how we’ve had people, and I’m so glad to see Mayor Pugh change this policy. We’ve had people lose their homes because they couldn’t pay their water bills. We know that our original charter had residential segregation literally written into it. We were a pioneer in redlining, in blockbusting. The FHA would not back loans in African American neighborhoods, forcing African Americans to get loans from shady contract buyers.

This crisis that we’re currently experiencing, this crisis of violence in our city, we as a city, as a state, and as a country, we created it. And it’s now incumbent on us, as citizens, as the City Council, as Mayor Pugh, as our state representatives, to do everything in our power to intentionally desegregate our institutions. So much of it, like you said, has to do with our housing policy and our country’s legacy of housing segregation.

When I taught in Sandtown-Winchester, 98 percent of my students were African American and the vast majority received free and reduced meals. That is not, in 2012, when I was teaching there, how a desegregated school system should look.

So, we have so much work to do and it starts at the local level. And we need support from our state and federal partners as well. That’s why my resolution today calls for immediate collaboration between city, state and federal partners to fix our broken school facilities.

JAISAL NOOR: Thank you so much.

ZEKE COHEN: You bet. Thank you.

JAISAL NOOR: For The Real News, this is Jaisal Noor in Baltimore.