A common refrain from conservative media, angry taxpayers and some frustrated parents is that Baltimore City Public Schools spends more per student than almost anywhere — and has little to show for it.
I, and countless teachers, educators and proud Baltimoreans have disputed this argument with facts that address the glaring inequality built into our education system.
The school system uses a portion of its $1.2 billion annual budget to provide students and families with services that other parts of civil society have failed to provide. A large share of the school budget is, of course, used to provide services that school systems across the country would consider standard: teachers, school buildings, tables, chairs, pencils and notebooks. Yet another part of the school budget is used to make up for academic underperformance. This would include boxed curricula from Pearson and Houghton Mifflin, consultants and instructional coaches. With all of this, Baltimore City Schools and its students continue to lag behind their peers, both locally and nationally.
I’m not writing to say that I have found the magical remedy for all of the school system’s problems. Rather, I’d like to help dispel a myth about how money is spent and highlight one strategy that has not been tried by city schools.
What new software, classroom management system or high leverage practice could I possibly be talking about? Well, to put it plainly, we seem to have tried everything except paying teachers more while giving them more resources, autonomy and support.
When a resident of Baltimore hears that the district spends more per student than other districts, they might think that Baltimore teachers make substantially more or that there are more teachers, and thus, fewer students per class. This is not the case. In fact, additional money from Title I or Comprehensive Support and Improvement grants is typically used on supplementary curricula and incentive programs.
Teachers in our city do not make substantially more money than teachers in nearby districts, do not have smaller classes and do not have more support in their teaching. As of July 2023, the starting salary for a Baltimore teacher with a bachelor’s degree is $53,898. In Frederick County schools, the same teacher would make $53,851. In 2022, the Maryland State Department of Education reported that Baltimore schools had, on average, 18.76 students per classroom. This is a higher classroom average than Montgomery County (17.63 students per classroom) and Anne Arundel County (18.07 students per classroom).
We seem to have tried everything — everything except letting teachers teach. “Teacher-proof” intervention programs have grown in number and in cost during the past several years. For example, in the three years that I have been at my current school, we have implemented the computer-based math intervention programs iReady, Math 180, and Imagine Math, in addition to paid curricula by Great Minds and College Board. Similarly, the number of qualified teachers in school buildings who do not teach any classes has increased during the past several years as the need for monitoring the implementation of these teacher-proof programs has grown. We have seen teacher morale plummet, and teacher wages have stagnated or declined in real terms.
As a Baltimoreteacher, here’s my recommendation on how to turn things around: We need more teachers who are better paid, have fewer non-teaching responsibilities and have more freedom, in smaller classes.
Joseph Mahach teaches Algebra I at Patterson High School in Baltimore City. He lives in East Baltimore with his wife and two dogs.