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Urban Rhythms

Real-World Education

By Wiley Hall III | Posted 11/28/2001

This is a story about Del. Howard P. Rawlings and me. Rawlings, a Baltimore City Democrat, is chairperson of the House of Delegates Appropriations Committee. He is regarded in some circles as a national expert on urban education, as one of the most powerful and respected figures in the state legislature, and as one of the best friends African-Americans have in Annapolis. He is quoted in the local media all the time, and that alone makes him important.

But over the years, I've been very critical of the good delegate, so much so that some friends and colleagues--people whose opinions I respect--have accused me of painting an overly negative picture of him. This bothers me. Journalists revel in being considered tough, fearless, and irreverent, but we don't like being perceived as unfair. Therefore, let me state for the record that Rawlings is a good man who has done good things for his constituents during 20-plus years in office.

He and I happen to disagree on one issue: the education of black children. But that issue is of fundamental importance. It also happens to be the issue that has made Rawlings a local hero in some circles and a pariah in others. Even many of those who have urged me to lighten up on Rawlings acknowledge that he has gone tragically astray on education.

In a nutshell, Rawlings believes urban school systems and historically black colleges and universities need to be held accountable for the quality of education they provide their students, the majority of whom are black. When those institutions fall to their knees in Annapolis, begging for more resources, Rawlings is one of the leading voices demanding to know what those schools do with the money they already receive.

I believe accountability ought to begin at the top. Maryland historically has operated two systems of education, separate and unequal, from kindergarten through graduate school. That disparity persists today. Bureaucrats can point to the numbers if they wish. For example, a state panel recently reported that over the past decade Maryland spent about $700 per student in capital improvements at Coppin State College, a historically black institution in West Baltimore, compared to more than $16,000 per student at other public institutions. Similarly, public schools in the city perennially rank near the bottom in per-pupil spending.

But you do not need to be an accountant to see the difference. Throughout the state, schools that serve a predominantly black population tend to be in older buildings that are less well maintained. Those schools tend to be overcrowded and underfunded. They offer fewer "luxury" education items, such as well-rounded art and music programs, class trips, access to computers and the Internet, and well-stocked, modern libraries. Take a tour of grade schools, middle schools, high schools, and colleges around the state, and the disparity between the "black" schools and the "white" schools is immediate and obvious.

This did not just happen. We are, after all, less than 50 years removed from the Brown decision, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the system of segregated schools was inherently unfair to black kids. It's interesting to note that the debate before the court then is identical to the ongoing debate over school funding today. One side argues, then and now, that equal resources do not guarantee equal educational results, especially if black kids come to school poorly prepared and if they live in a cultural environment that puts little value in learning. The other side argues, then and now, that the disparity in resources is so great that black kids are systematically denied a quality education regardless of their motivation or preparation. And because blacks are isolated politically, they have little chance of convincing elected officials to reverse the trend.

In 1954, the Supreme Court accepted latter argument. But look at what's happened since then. From 1954 to the early 1960s, society essentially ignored Brown. Protest marches, sit-ins, and legal challenges led to passage of a series of civil-rights laws from 1964 to 1968. Then we spent another decade in litigation. Meanwhile, the middle class so abandoned urban schools that the average black child is just as likely to attend a predominantly black school as a generation ago.

On the college level, the state invested heavily in new construction for its traditionally white institutions while neglecting its historically black ones. Maryland has had to spend hundreds of millions of dollars in recent years making up for decades of neglect at Morgan State University. It will have to spend millions more renovating Coppin.

State officials have successfully deflected demands for improvement on the grade-school level by insisting that students prove they are worth the money through endless rounds of standardized tests. Sooner or later, though, Maryland will have to play catch-up in Baltimore schools as well.

I believe Rawlings is sincere when he seeks to hold schools accountable. In an ideal world, his point of view would not be incompatible with my own. However, in this, the real world, the state's deliberate, conscious, systematic impoverishment of black institutions--and the harm this does to the students who attend them--overrides all other concerns. This was true in 1954, and it is true today.

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