In January of 2015, Governor Lawrence J Hogan, Jr. assumed office making him only the second Republican Governor for the state of Maryland in the past 46 years. Hogan’s predecessor, Martin O’Malley, brought impactful social changes to the state during his incumbency, many of which were controversial. Among the most notable was signing the 2011 law allowing undocumented high school students who meet certain conditions to be eligible for in-state college tuition; for supporters, proudly referred to as the Dream Act. In 2012, he signed a law to legalize same-sex marriage in the state. It was positive change. Change that most progressive liberals welcomed. I vividly remember staying up late to watch the vote and then celebrating on November 6th when the Dream Act and same-sex marriage law passed on referendum in the general election. For the same-sex marriage, it was a close win at 52.4% and this was monumental as it was the first time such a law had passed by the popular vote.
Since Governor Hogan has taken office the social progress and momentum built up by his predecessor has come to a halt. As the FY16 budget is being prepared, the Governor seems to be mis-aligned with his campaign promises. To some extent, this is to be expected as the realities once in office are different from the perceptions outside the Govenor’s Mansion. However, when it comes to education funding, he has the budget ax swinging. Heated disagreements and concerns among the Democrat led General Assembly, educational advocates, and citizens who care about our children have reflected his proposed education cuts that started at the tune of $144 million; that is a big number.
Lawmakers in both parties agreed to compromise and set aside $68 millionin Geographic Cost of Education Index (GCEI) funding. This funding is most essential for the heavily populated urban jurisdictions including Baltimore City, Montgomery County, and Prince George’s County. Take a look at the chart below derived from the Maryland State Education Association (MSEA) website; the numbers speak for themselves. As a parent of children in the Montgomery County school system, I can tell you that our children and youth cannot afford to lose any more staff and services. Our teachers are already purchasing their own supplies and putting many more hours than to be expected, to ensure the children in their classes have the emotional and academic support they need to progress. The Baltimore Sun reports that Baltimore City school teachers are doing the same and reference teachers buying even the musical instruments on their own dimes.
In the wake of the Baltimore riots following the homicide of Freddie Gray, the same Baltimore Sun article covered the story of Baltimore leaders rallying last Monday, urging Governor Hogan to release the $11.4 million in GSEA funding. This rally was in concert with larger state-wide advocacy efforts, including those organized by the Maryland State Education Association (MSEA) and teacher unions. That funding would help to ensure cuts to vital staff, school-based services, and after school programs would not be necessary as the City attempts to balance a very difficult budget. At Monday’s rally, state Del. Maggie McIntosh, a Baltimore Democrat shared, “We are not the same Baltimore we were three weeks ago. We are one Baltimore. We can be better because we are listening to our youth.” Unfortunately, the advocacy and rally did not change the Governor’s mind. He confirmed on Thursday that he would not release the $68 million that lawmakers, with unanimous votes by Republican members of the General Assembly, had set aside for GSEA funding, putting it instead towards state employee pensions. According to the Baltimore Sun, this latest bad news, coupled with a $14 million loss in formula funding due to unanticipated growth in wealth and the large deficit facing the city’s school system, means that Baltimore City schools will receive $1o8 million less in state funding next year. One English teacher from Dunbar High School, noted for its impoverished East Baltimore neighborhood setting, told the Huffington Post that, “I have weathered many storms since I began teaching — and I have come to expect waste, mismanagement, and political well-poisoning — but I’ve never seen anything as destructive to our school and our students’ prospects as the current tempest.”
Immediately, I could feel the pain. Like a blow to the chest. The pain of what will certainly be perceived as further institutional inequality and systematic oppression. Initially, I thought about what it must feel like to be a young high school student, or the caring adult of the same, in Baltimore City right now. I felt my heart sink. I believe there is no greater time than now to be listening to our youth, and, as Dr. Martin Luther King so profoundly taught us, “A riot is the language of the unheard.” How will the latest generation be heard in the coming months and years in light of these budget cuts to educational services.
Yes, “they” are are already trying to tell us something. And I would argue that we need to take it a step further than just hearing each and every cry for help. We need to listen. Not just during the “riot”, because our youth in communities of inescapable poverty and violence have been begging for us to listen long before any tragedy, peaceful protest, or riot. If we are truly listening, we will continue to advocate for comprehensive school and community based services.
While Baltimore City school funding may fall short, there are still opportunities to meet the needs of our youth. Baltimore is proving itself to be equipped with political advocates as well as public and private agencies who are working together for reform. For example, the Baltimore Sun reports that Health Commissioner, Dr. Leana Wen, is scheduled to propose ideas developed in coordination with health, public safety, and youth advocacy organizations. Some of the proposals include identifying and implementing changes to the practice of school expulsion and increasing fatherhood programs. Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development(BUILD) is a non-partisan, interfaith, and multiracial non-profit that goes into neighborhoods and communities most in need and works WITH the people to create positive social change. Among BUILD’s 4 primary focuses for the year ahead are: Youth Opportunities, School & Education, and Crime & Safety. Another non-profit, Child First Authority (CFA),serves as a private-public partnership and has provided funding for after school community centers that deliver family-centered services. As a social worker, I know that family-centered approaches that focus on providing services for youth and their families have a greater chance at providing critical support and making impactful change. CFA also believes in the importance of community organizing and mobilizes parents, school staff, and community partners to act on their vision of a brighter future. Furthermore, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s track record shows she is dedicated to improving the social welfare of Baltimore City. On May 7th, the Mayor announced a new strategic initiative – One Baltimore. In her press conference, Rawlings-Blake shared, “In addition to One Baltimore focusing on the immediate, short-term needs of those communities affected by our recent unrest and violence, this is an opportunity for us to focus more intensely on systemic problems that have faced our city for decades, if not generations.
I believe in Baltimore. I believe that, despite set-backs and political disappointments, supporters of Baltimore will continue to unite and make progress. Progress such as the significant positive changes made in 4-year high school graduation rates and high school dropout rates from 2010 to 2013. As reported in Baltimore Magazine in January of 2014, the high school graduation rate in Baltimore City increased to 68.5% in 2013 compared to 61.5% in 2010. Even more compelling is that only 726 students of the class of 2013 dropped out compared to 1,530 students of the class of 2010.
The Baltimore Police Department (BPD) has made several changes that have proved effective over the last couple of years. In 2013 the Police Department implemented a new Strategic Plan. Just one year into the changes implemented under the new Plan saw declines in every area of crime, including a 10% decrease in the number of homicides; this marks the second lowest number of annual homicides the City has seen across the last decade. According to Mayor Rawlings-Blake’s State of the City Address, the BPD will expand its Operation CeaseFire program to include the Eastern District in 2015. This program resulted in a 45% decline in annual homicides occurring in the Western District last year. Despite the horrific actions of the officers in the Freddie Gray homicide, the BPD appears to be committed to continuing on the path of creating safer neighborhoods.
I believe that as Baltimore continues to become One Baltimore, it will rise out of the Freddie Gray tragedy, the violent protests following the event, and budget woes as a stronger, safer, and healthier city.
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