And I know, maybe, it’ll probably be a little bit more expensive, but at the same time, it’s, “How much do you care about the student?”
That comment came from Kendra, an 18-year-old Baltimore City Public Schools student who participated in one of 187 interviews conducted and analyzed by the Nobody Asked Me research team in the School of Education at Johns Hopkins University. Our goal was to ask Baltimore students and their families about the challenges in their daily lives. To our surprise, many mentioned the physical conditions of the elementary, middle and high schools they attended. Our team found that while Kendra and many other students aim for educational success, their school buildings represent an obstacle to their dreams and health.
I knew that there were schools that, like, the heating didn’t work, the AC didn’t work. They were sweating in class, they were freezing in class, for different reasons. I knew that there were schools where the bathrooms were literally the most disgusting thing on the planet. It’s more disgusting than public bathrooms usually are.
That statement came from Michelle, a 16-year-old student. As a result of systemic intergenerational underfunding, Baltimore City Public Schools students often find themselves in sweltering or freezing classrooms that are not conducive to learning. Holes in roofs and classroom ceilings allow rain to seep through during the school day, with the sound of raindrops falling so loudly into buckets that students cannot concentrate.
We heard of worn old pipes that burst in lunch areas and school basements, leaving students afraid to drink the water and eat the cafeteria food. Students reported bathrooms without running water, soap, paper towels, toilet seats, or doors for privacy. Disintegrating walls allow bugs, roaches, mice and rats to enter students’ classrooms and buildings — buildings that students said resemble prisons more than thriving spaces. Students report that teachers, custodians and school administrators are all impacted by poor school conditions. For example, custodians often have to work harder with fewer resources and dollars to address poor school conditions.
And that wasn’t the worst of it.
Students told us that the school infrastructure conditions reflect their treatment by society. Several stated that they believe society wants them in schools that look like prisons to show them they are animals and belong in segregated and entrapped places. Many students, regardless of their race, felt that racism was the reason they had to suffer in these schools. As another student, Andy, told us, “So, I believe it’s because of our skin color and because they don’t really care.” In contrast, students recognized that their friends and family members who attend private or public schools in newer, affluent and whiter areas do not have to worry about these same challenges.
One young person said students learned to laugh at the poor condition of her school because they did not want to cry.
Incredibly, the systemic intergenerational underfunding that leads to infrastructure gaps that are so obvious to Baltimore students has yet to be acknowledged fully by Maryland officials. In 2022, as part of ongoing litigation, a state witness testified that Baltimore schools were above average among Maryland counties’ school infrastructure. This misleading assertion is contradicted by extensive evidence from the comprehensive survey of the state’s K-through-12 schools. Baltimore is home to some of the oldest, most unhealthy schools — the recent investment in the 21st Century Schools program notwithstanding.
What’s behind the state of school infrastructure in Baltimore?
Systemic intergenerational underfunding arises from the disparities created by a system of funding public education primarily via property taxes. Maryland has failed to uphold its commitment enshrined in the state constitution to ensure that every student receives an adequate education. Starting more than a century ago, the dehumanization of Black people legitimized segregation through racial covenants, redlining and blockbusting, which confined Black people to certain areas. Meanwhile, these policies and practices helped produce intergenerational wealth through homeownership for many white families that moved to surrounding counties.
Politicians have decided that local property taxes support school construction funding. Wealthier counties spend hundreds of millions of dollars to upgrade and replace schools every year. Baltimore, because of a legacy of racial discrimination, can only contribute much, much less. Therefore, it is neither the current students’ fault nor their parents’ fault, so why should they suffer because of the wrongs of yesterday?
What is to be done?
Fixing the situation starts with better use of state funding for school construction. By July 2024, the state’s Interagency Commission on School Construction, known as the IAC, plans to adopt a formula to prioritize its investments. A legislative workgroup is expected to guide this process. Unfortunately, the IAC’s proposed approach undervalues the harmful conditions faced by many city students, as well as those from low-income and Black and Hispanic families across the state. As I have recently shown with my colleagues, Joshua Sharfstein from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, and Catherine Gong, a recent Bloomberg graduate, an alternative approach would better align school infrastructure priorities with areas of educational need.
However, even with a better funding formula for state resources, more needs to be done to compensate for decades of underfunding schools in Baltimore. There’s a precedent from a century ago. In 1922, Maryland established an “equalization program” to support and construct new school districts that did not have enough funding from local property taxes. City residents contributed, even though the benefits accrued in other jurisdictions.
Now the shoe is on the other foot. Other counties need to chip in to bring all schools up to par. Maryland has begun prioritizing educational equity. Legislators and Gov. Moore are supporting the funding recommendations of the Kirwan Commission, and far more resources will come to Baltimore as a result. Unfortunately, these funds will be phased in over time, and they do not cover capital spending, where so much more still needs to be done.
Another alternative is that the state identifies or dedicates new revenue streams to correct the imbalance and cease to privilege the wealthier school system in the current infrastructure replacement formulas. We have a choice: We can become proactive and address these issues, or become stuck, or we can focus on the lack of local property taxes in Baltimore. We should think outside the box and find new revenues to address systemic intergenerational funding that hinders the quality of students’ lives in their schools.
Kendra, Andy and many other students we interviewed have already graduated from high school. When I think of their interviews, I vividly recall their emotions and words. That’s when I become emotional. I promised myself that I would do as much as possible to ensure that students will be in healthy and safe learning environments to develop the skills to connect them to a global world. Research suggests that when students feel connected to society and their schools, violent behavior is reduced, strong bonds with peers and teachers are formed, and attendance and academic outcomes increase.
The neglect that our children feel deeply every day in decrepit schools pushes our city in the wrong direction. Let us not allow this to happen on our watch.
I often reflect on Kendra’s fundamental question: “How much do you care about the student?” Kendra and current students are waiting for us to answer this question. Our political will, the policies we endorse, and our implementation will be our answer.
Dr. Richard Lofton Jr. is an assistant professor at the School of Education’s Center for Healthy and Safe Schools at Johns Hopkins University.