As each school year starts anew, thousands of students attending Baltimore City Public Schools (BCPS) set out to pursue their passions, further their studies, and ultimately obtain their high school diplomas. Yet for generations of BCPS children, obtaining an adequate education remains out of reach, despite the Maryland Constitution’s guarantee that each student has a right to a “thorough and efficient” public education. As another generation of BCPS students endures compounding consequences from educational funding deficits, the onus is urgently on the state’s legislature and judiciary to decide whether this constitutional right is only a hollow promise.
Baltimore City Public Schools have been chronically underfunded for decades. According to Maryland’s own 2017 assessment, BCPS was underfunded by at least $342 million — a figure that does not even include facilities renovation costs, which are estimated to total over $3 billion. As the state manages to approve $1.2 billion over the next two years for stadiums for the Orioles and Ravens, the city’s baseball and football teams, it fails once again to place the same value on Baltimore schoolchildren.
The funding shortfalls are neither a secret nor new. Thirty years ago, parents of BCPS students brought suit against the state in Bradford v. Maryland State Board of Education seeking to vindicate their children’s educational right under the Maryland Constitution. By 1996, the court had ruled that Baltimore City schoolchildren were receiving an inadequate education, and the state agreed to fund the district as the state constitution required. Despite the circuit court’s repeated mandates — in 1996, 2000, 2002 and 2004 — to address BCPS’s deficiencies, the state never fully fulfilled its obligations and the funding deficit only worsened.
The consequences of this neglect are dire. Baltimore City students learn in school buildings with leaking ceilings, asbestos hazard signs in the halls, lead in the drinking fountains, piles of rodent droppings, and unsanitary bathrooms. In winter, some classrooms get so cold that students can see their own breath. Amid a recent heatwave, several BCPS facilities were forced to modify their schedules, as they did not have functioning air conditioning. Students also cannot be expected to learn if their school building isn’t even open. In fact, a recent Johns Hopkins study found that over the course of four years, BCPS students lost 1.5 million hours of class time due to building failures. In addition to infrastructure issues, needs for basic supplies, buses, library books, and elective courses go unmet. And support staff, including school nurses, are few.
Disproportionately, the students affected by this neglect are students of color: 76% of BCPS students are Black and 14% percent are Latinx. BCPS elementary, middle, and high schools fall short of meeting Maryland’s targets for academic achievement, with alarmingly low proficiency rates in core subjects and the highest drop-out rate in the state. These rates stand out sharply against a study that found that Maryland is the second most educated state in the country.
The funding deficit exacerbates other disparities that make it harder for BCPS students to learn. The child poverty rate in Baltimore City is three times that of other large districts in Maryland and children face increased rates of trauma, violence, and discrimination than children state- and nationwide. Compared to other school districts, more BCPS children live in racially-segregated communities, have disabilities or special needs, or are English language learners.
The right to a “thorough and efficient” education, enshrined in the Maryland Constitution, should protect Baltimore City schoolchildren from this unacceptable reality. It requires the state to appropriate sufficient funds to all school districts — and, indeed, the Maryland State Board of Education touts its goal of providing a world-class education to all public school students. But while recent legislation, like the Blueprint Act for Maryland’s Future, 21st Century Schools Buildings Program, and the Built to Learn Act, have provided some necessary funding, these laws and programs are insufficient to address the school district’s deep curriculum deficit and its crumbling buildings.
In 2019, plaintiffs in the Bradford case — who are parents of a class of students attending BCPS — returned to the Circuit Court for Baltimore City, alleging that the state continued to violate their children’s educational rights. Among other evidence, the plaintiffs presented a report featuring the voices of Black BCPS students, who drew connections between their deteriorating schools and the value they believe society places on them. In the report, the students noted that they often felt that “because they attended a predominantly Black school district, their quarantining to a school building equivalent to the slums was inevitable.”
But, despite hundreds of pages of evidence presented by plaintiffs, in March 2023 the circuit court found that the state was not liable, and that the Maryland Constitution requires no more funding for Baltimore City schoolchildren. The ruling puts Maryland behind other states where courts have held their legislatures accountable for leaving school districts behind, giving teeth to their state’s constitutional mandates.
The Bradford plaintiffs will continue fighting and have appealed this decision to the Appellate Court of Maryland. In the meantime, the Maryland legislature should develop a plan to achieve and maintain adequate levels of funding for BCPS, including ensuring that full funding under the Blueprint Act for Mayland’s Future is actually delivered. Additionally, the Department of Legislative Services should conduct another adequacy study to determine the current funding gap in BCPS, as the last study was conducted six years ago.
Like any other child in Maryland, Baltimore City schoolchildren deserve to learn in safe, healthy environments where they can develop the skills they need to succeed and thrive. Only then will Maryland deliver on its constitutional promise to all students and ensure another generation of children is not left behind.
LDF, the ACLU of Maryland, and BakerHostetler represent a group of Baltimore City parents and students in a lawsuit against the Maryland State Board of Education for its chronic and continued failure to provide constitutionally adequate educational opportunities to students.
The decision from the Court in the Bradford case, which spans three decades, leaves another generation of schoolchildren in Baltimore City Public Schools without the equitable funding needed for a quality education.
LDF and co-counsel filed a motion seeking a summary judgment from the Court against the Maryland State Board of Education for its chronic and continued failure to provide constitutionally adequate educational opportunities to students.
A Dec. 2020 letter detailed how the fiscal year 2022 budget and legislative session is an opportunity to recognize the unconstitutional lack of educational resources in Baltimore City, stop the snowballing generational effects of underfunded education, and make these communities whole.
In March 2020, LDF called on the Maryland State Senate to amend the Blueprint Bill so that its funding formula sufficiently addresses pre-existing inequities between counties with high wealth and those with low wealth.