Baltimore's failing schools are a tragedy of criminal proportions

Baltimore's failing schools are a tragedy of criminal proportions
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Back in 2005, Emmy-award winning television drama The Wire shined a harsh light on Baltimore City Schools. It proved to be an eye-opening experience for viewers who are not familiar with the tragic plight of students in Baltimore. The show portrayed a dystopian reality for students, who faced violence and poverty, living amidst blighted neighborhoods riddled with drugs, crime and decay.

While the dramatic depiction of inner-city horror was a tragedy of almost Shakespearean proportions, the actual real-life tragedy in Baltimore is in many respects far worse. According to information uncovered by the Project Baltimore Investigation by the local Fox News affiliate WBFF, Baltimore spends roughly $1.4 billion annually on education, or roughly $16,000 per student. Baltimore’s spending on education is the fourth highest of any municipality in the country. Despite this massive commitment of resources, Baltimore schools have some of the lowest educational proficiency levels in the country.

According to Project Baltimore investigative journalist Chris Papst, reading proficiency rates among Baltimore High School graduates hover at around 11 percent, and math proficiency rates hover around 12 percent. This is in a school system that graduates roughly 70 percent of its students each year. There is clearly a major disconnection between the high graduation rate and the extremely dismal academic proficiency rate.

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This discrepancy alone, given the money that goes into the system, is prima facie evidence of a crime. As Project Baltimore continues to follow the path of the money, it becomes increasingly obvious that there are strong institutional incentives to keep Baltimore’s clearly failing system in place. In a very real sense, the dysfunction in Baltimore’s schools mirror a similar dysfunction in the city’s political establishment. In a city of fewer than 600,00 residents, with a rapidly declining school enrollment, literally thousands of individuals in the school system receive salaries in excess of $100,000 per year. Most of the recipients of this government largesse are not teachers but consultants, contractors, and administrators.

 

The school system, it seems, has become a platform for political patronage, and rewarding allies of the city’s political class. How else could the school system’s budget be so saddled with bureaucracy and blight? To be sure, the Baltimore school system faces social problems among its student populations — the traumas of violence, crime and drugs — that necessitate more resources. The school system has in many ways become an extension of the welfare state by playing social worker, nanny, and counselor for children ravaged by the ills of inner city decline.

But that is no excuse, when the primary role of the school system remains its ability to produce productive citizens who will in turn contribute to society in meaningful ways. This is clearly not happening in Baltimore. In one high school, six students were murdered in one school year alone. Others have gone on to illustrious careers as criminals, and many of the school systems graduates are populating the city’s overcrowded jails and prisons. Despite facing tough challenges among its student population, it is imperative that schools succeed in graduating students who are proficient enough in basic skills to enter the jobs market.

Teachers in Baltimore and around the country have complained about the state-wide testing requirements imposed under the No Child Left Behind legislation initiated under former President George W. Bush. Even in the show, The Wire, teachers chafed under ‘onerous’ requirements of ‘teaching to the tests.’ They complained that the standardized tests bore little relationship to the lives faced by students out on the mean streets of Baltimore. And while that may be true to some extent, the response by the school system seemed to focus mainly on warehousing students and passing them to the next grade regardless of their academic performance.

The perverse incentives in Baltimore, where students are permitted to attend any school of their choice, is that students have tended to choose the schools with the highest graduation rates, or, rather, the highest social promotion rates. The tragic consequence of sweeping academic progress under the rug in favor of social promotion has produced wildly absurd results. At Frederick Douglas High School, which had an 87 percent graduation rate, just one student out of a student body of 185 students tested in the proficient range in math. In several other public high schools around the city, not a single student passed the state proficiency test.

The consequences of this tragedy — thousands of students graduating each year without even basic education attainment — reveal a crime of almost epic proportions. Individuals and firms that service the Baltimore school system are making off with literally billions of taxpayer dollars with nothing to show for it.

In any for-profit corporation, dismal results such as these would have caused it to go bankrupt long ago, pushed out of the market by companies that could better serve the consumer. Some teachers have even begun to argue that preparing students for college-level proficiency is too high a mark to reasonable aim. The bigotry of lowered expectations always leads to a predictable cycle of decline. It is a moral hazard in a bureaucracy where the agents are not held personally or politically accountable by principles.

But in the tortured logic of Baltimore’s political bureaucracy, failure is incentivized. It is at best a massive fraud committed against students who are cheated out of a future, and taxpayers whose hard-earned money is being wasted. At worst, Baltimore’s performance is a genocidal crime against generations of children who are then turned out into the streets to face a world of crime, drugs, prison and death that has resulted in a murder rate of over 300 per year.

The buck has to stop somewhere. Cutting off the flow of unaccounted tax dollars to an underperforming, bloated school system that is cynically betraying children should be seriously considered.

Armstrong Williams (@ARightSide) is author of the brand new book, "Reawakening Virtues." He served as an adviser and spokesman for Dr. Ben Carson's 2016 presidential campaign, and is on Sirius XM126 Urban View nightly from 6:00-8:00 p.m. Eastern.