Bradford v. Maryland State Board of Education

Date Filed: 03/07/2019

Bradford v. Maryland State Board of Education

Challenging Chronic, Unconstitutional Underfunding in Baltimore City Schools

Legal Defense Fund, ACLU of Maryland, and BakerHostetler represent a group of parents of students attending public schools in Baltimore City in Bradford v. Maryland State Board of Education. Filed in 1994, the lawsuit challenges the Maryland State Board of Education’s chronic and continued failure to provide constitutionally adequate educational opportunities to students. This important lawsuit, brought by families championing the state constitutional right to a “thorough and efficient” education for students in Baltimore City, spans nearly three decades. Plaintiffs argue that the chronic underfunding is a violation of Maryland’s Constitution, which requires that the State provide sufficient funds to its school systems so that all children in Maryland receive an education that prepares them to be successful in life.

Generations of underfunding has meant that Baltimore City children attend schools that have:

In 1996, 2000, 2002, and 2004, Maryland Courts repeatedly found that funding for Baltimore City schools was constitutionally inadequate. Yet, a permanent plan was never implemented that addressed structural inequity for students in Baltimore City, where generations of Black and Brown children have been denied adequate and equitable resources compared to the wealthier school systems that surround them. By the State’s own calculation, the estimated gap between what the State should have provided since 2017 and what it has provided is more than 1/3 of a billion dollars per year. It is the State of Maryland’s duty to ensure that the education rights of all students are upheld by meeting that funding gap. 

Following the implementation of the Thornton funding formula in 2002 through the Bridge to Excellence Act, the state attempted to correct for historical funding gaps facing BCPSS with increased financial support. But starting with the arrival of the Great Recession in 2008, the state of Maryland abandoned a commitment to equity and stopped adjusting the funding formula for inflation, leading to millions of lost funds for districts like Baltimore City – that could not close the gap with local tax dollars – that continues to this day. 

The state’s failure to sufficiently invest in BCPS schools has stifled the educational opportunities of generations of students. 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.

The shameful reality of the barriers created by unequal funding was on display when students in 87 Baltimore City schools – over half of all public schools in the City – attended class in rooms without heat or with limited heat. Over the course of a two-week period, over 60 schools were forced to close, with thousands of students forced to miss days at a time. This past summer, numerous schools again were forced to close, because nearly 40 percent or BCPS classrooms had no air conditioning.

Baltimore City’s school buildings are by far the oldest in the state. Over 80 percent of the system’s 158 schools are in “very poor” or “poor” condition. The well-documented problems include lack of drinkable water due to un-remediated lead in water pipes, ancient boiler systems, roofs in need a replacement, and deficient electrical and fire safety systems. Moreover, the State’s own figures show that the City schools have an annual “adequacy gap” of at least $290 million in educational funding, and the Kirwan Commission studies show that Baltimore City needs at least $358 million in additional annual funding to support educational programs.

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. Laws and programs like the Blueprint Act for Maryland’s Future21st Century Schools Buildings Program, and the Built to Learn Act provided some necessary funding but are insufficient to address the school district’s 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. 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. 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.”

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.

See an interactive timeline, videos, and legal documents for Bradford v. Maryland State Board of Education here.

LDF Original Content

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 the constitutional right to a “thorough and efficient” public education is only a hollow promise.

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