Baltimore City School District Has Come a Long Way since 2007, but There’s Still Work to Be Done

In Reason Foundation’s recently published Weighted Student Formula Yearbook 2013, Baltimore City Public School (BCPS) district received an overall “F” grade and ranked last among the school districts highlighted in the report. But the poor grade in the Yearbook — which measures student academic outcomes and implementation of each district’s student-based budgeting policy — does not mean that the district hasn’t made notable gains over the past few years.

HBO’s The Wire showed the startlingly accurate portrayal of the district’s public school system when its fourth season aired in 2006. Juvenile crime and truancy were rampant while the school district bureaucracy faced a $50 million budget deficit and continued to fail to improve academic outcomes. Most of the school districts in the Yearbook did not face the concatenation of hurdles that needed to be overcome as did Baltimore upon embarking on their journey of school finance reform.

Andres Alonso took the job of Baltimore City Public Schools Chief Operating Officer in 2007, at a time when (among other things) the district’s juvenile homicide rate was almost five times higher than the Maryland rate and over eight times higher than national rate. Also, the district’s annual dropout rate was more than twice that of the state average, suspension rates were 30 percent higher than other Maryland school districts, and negative punishment were extremely disproportionate based on race and poverty. In his first months as CEO, Alonso took initiative to address these issues in Baltimore City Public School’s comprehensive school safety plan, Creating and Sustaining Environment to Support Teaching and Learning.

The plan included three objectives — to identify factors contributing positively or negatively to school safety, climate, and learning environments, to create and implement comprehensive school-based plans for creating safe and supportive learning environments, and to create and support a multi-agency Steering Committee that would provide support services to students, community and family leaders, and youth during the development and implementation of the new school safety plan.

When released, the school safety plan was unique in that it focused on keeping kids in schools rather than shooing them out like the “zero tolerance” plans popularized in the 1990s. Since then the district has continued to work towards more tolerance and flexibility as well as in-school safety, cleanliness, and discipline to keep kids off the street and out of the juvenile justice system.

For instance, in 2009 legislation passed that now prohibits schools from suspending or expelling students based solely on attendance-related offences including cutting class, tardiness, and truancy. Also in 2009, Baltimore City Schools collaborated with the MacArthur Foundation’s Model for Change DMC Action Network and Baltimore’s Department of Juvenile Services to start the Baltimore City Educational Project. The project helps youth leaving detention to reenter schools and insures that these students are placed in academic programs within five days of release from detention.

The initiatives taken to form more in-school responses to misbehavior have shown compelling outcomes, especially among high school students. Juvenile shootings in Baltimore city were down by 67 percent, and juvenile arrests were down by 57 percent between 2007 and 2011. Over the same period, truancy was down 86 percent, and suspensions down 34 percent.

Shortly after launching the district’s school safety plan, Alonso and his staff worked to solve the district’s financial woes and increase the quality of the district’s schools. On April 15, 2008, in a nine to seven vote by the Board of School Commissioners BCPS adopted Fair Student Funding — a plan to decentralize school finances, empower principals, and offer parents more choice.

Prior to Fair Student Funding (FSF), school funding was driven by a staffing model where schools received staff rather than dollars. This antiquated funding model created vast inequities in per-pupil spending due to differences in seniority and personnel costs school to school. Conversely, under Fair Student Funding per-pupil funding is allocated based on each student’s unique needs, following them to the school of their choice.

The district’s most recent FSF formula for FY 2014 allocates a base of $5,190 per student which is supplemented by the following “weights” for students with particular needs:

  • Add $1,000 for each student performing at the basic level;
  • Add $1,000 for each student performing at the advanced level;
  • Add $641 for each student with disabilities; and
  • Add $650 for each high school student at risk of dropping out.

Each student’s funding then follows them to the school of their choosing through Baltimore City’s open enrollment policy — an essential component of Alonso’s 2008 reforms. Now, parents can go online and fill out one application, listing in order of preference the middle or high school they would like to enroll their child in.

Adding to the diverse portfolio of programmatic options, BCPS parents also have the choice of enrolling their child in a district charter school. In the 2013—14 school year BCPS has a total of 31 charter schools plus an additional19 schools managed by external operators enrolling Baltimore City students.

The district’s push for school choice has created an environment for healthy competition between schools to attract and retain students and the funding that is attached to them. Consequently, Baltimore’s open enrollment policies act as a market mechanism, revealing parent and student demand for each school to BCPS administrators.

In keeping with its belief that resources should be in the schools, not in the central office, under Fair Student Funding BCPS has been able to cut district office positions by 33 percent (from 1,496 in FY 2008 to 1,001 in FY 2012) and moved $164 million in additional dollars to schools. Slimming down the central office and redirecting those funds directly to schools has resulted in direct school funding increases every year since FY 2008. This means that more dollars are going to school principals so that they have more autonomy over how their school operates and can decide how to best serve their students.

In exchange for added autonomy over their finances, schools are held accountable for their performance through school-level profiles which cover things like academic achievement and utilization. The district CEO and Board of School Commissioners review school profiles annually and can strategically close the lowest-performing and under-enrolled schools and expand high performing, high demand schools in order to move students to higher-quality schools.

As a result, academic outcomes have been on an upward trend. Baltimore City’s five-year graduation rate for the Class of 2012 is 71.7 percent, compared to 70.6 percent for the Class of 2011 and 66.7 percent for the Class of 2010. Also, dropout rates are down from 23.8 percent for the Class of 2010 to 14.1 percent for the Class of 2012. Similarly, 2013 reading proficiency rates on the Maryland State Assessment improved from the previous year.

Despite these positive outcomes, BCPS still has work to do improving academic achievement, as shown in Reason’s Weighted Student Formula Yearbook 2013. Tisha Edwards, who was recently appointed Interim Chief Executive Officer of Baltimore City schools, recognizes the need to continue and strengthen the reforms put in place by her predecessor, Andres Alonso. Upon assuming the position of Interim CEO, Edwards stated that it is her priority to continue to move forward that work accomplished under the leadership of Dr. Alonso and to keep the focus on the success of BCPS students.