From the Baltimore Sun

Fixing schools by mixing them

By Michael Hill
Sun reporter

April 9, 2006

Unlike a lot of urban experts, David Rusk has been on the front lines - he was mayor of Albuquerque, N.M., from 1977 to 1981.

Now a consultant based in Washington, Rusk has spent a lot of his time looking at Baltimore. His 1996 book Baltimore Unbound: A Strategy for Regional Renewal decried what he called the "inelastic" nature of the city's archaic boundaries, arguing that it is necessary for the entire region to share the burdens dumped onto the urban core.

He sees a repetition of these problems behind the current controversy over city schools. Although a state takeover of some city schools could be seen as a move toward a regional solution, Rusk does not believe there will be any real progress in Baltimore's education statistics until something is done about the concentration of students who live below the poverty line.

"Housing policy is education policy" is his summation of the issue.

Do you find any hope in the proposed takeover of some failing Baltimore schools by the state, the prospect of renewed attention bringing a better education to these city youngsters?

It was in 1997, I think, that Education Week, the weekly journal of the profession, sent out one of its investigative reporters, charged with finding an urban education district that was succeeding. He came back after two months and wrote that, unfortunately, there are none.

I would say that any school district with roughly 60 percent of more lower-income kids - measured by eligibility for free school lunches - is not going to do well. I'm not blaming the kids for that. A whole lot of things flow into it, beginning with inadequate prenatal care. You have home environments that are not sufficiently stimulating for little children's minds. And as kids get older, there are all sorts of adverse neighborhood influences, tensions and stresses and privations in the household.

There's the phenomenon of students' families constantly moving around. I'll bet in many Baltimore city elementary schools half the kids a teacher starts the year with are gone by the end of the year, replaced by another group of kids, sometimes a couple of times over. It's this churning that goes on with folks who have to live on the edge.

If you took the superintendents and all the faculty members of the Baltimore city school system and the Howard County school system and swapped them, it is quite possible that the Howard County folks would do worse in Baltimore City than the folks you've got there now. And vice versa.

One analysis I did measured where the schools ought to be, given the nature of their students. Some of the highest-performing schools by that standard were city schools, and some of the lowest-performing were in places like Howard County and Anne Arundel County and other suburban systems where you expect the kids to perform way up there.

This is nothing new. These findings were discovered by James Coleman in 1966 in a massive report on the equality of educational opportunity for the U.S. Office of Education that looked in detail at [tens of thousands] of public school systems. The overwhelming predictor of success was the socioeconomic status of the student's family, followed closely by the socioeconomic status of their classmates. Nothing else even came close.

So it does not matter how old or new the building is, what the teacher-pupil ratio is, how much money is spent per pupil; it is all overwhelmed by the issue of who these kids are.

What is the situation in Baltimore?

There has been a multi-decade sorting going on, that obviously has heavy racial overtones to it, basically of middle-class families moving out of Baltimore. Many of the middle-class families that remain - black and white - don't have their kids in city schools. The last time I looked in Baltimore, it had edged upward to about 84 percent poor kids in city schools.

And how does that affect education outcomes?

I looked at this when I did a study for the Abell Foundation in 1997 and again six years later, and the results were exactly the same. Who the kids are, measured as the percentage of students qualifying for federally subsidized lunches, had a .81 correlation with variations in school-by-school test scores. A 1.00 would be a perfect match, so this correlation is very high, really an absolute bull's-eye figure.

Is there anything that can be done?

The Baltimore situation is classic in cities like that. But if you look, on the other hand, at what I call an elastic city, that keeps expanding its boundaries, a place like Charlotte, N.C., where there is a unified system that takes in the surrounding suburban counties, you have a very different picture.

The Charlotte-Mecklenberg public schools were even more different than they are today when they still had a racial balancing program in effect. That was ordered by a federal court in 1972 and fought tooth and nail by the power structure. It was dismantled several years ago by a conservative federal judge over the objection of the same classes of people who had fought it a generation before. They had come to realize that integrated schools were a tremendous benefit to the region.

An alternative approach has been taken by Wade County in North Carolina, where Raleigh is located. They took the initiative when they saw the handwriting on the wall regarding racial balancing plans and decided instead on a policy of economic balancing in their schools. That has worked very well. They have just come out with a report showing substantial educational improvement.

But that is not an alternative in places like Baltimore, where you don't have a large enough middle-class population in the system to use to integrate all the schools. There has to be a regional solution.

But if poverty is such a predictor of academic problems, how can there be any change in school performance without doing something about poverty?

Studies I've done in Baltimore and in Albuquerque all found that for every 1 percent increase in middle-class classmates, there was an .18 percent increase on average in the test scores of low-income children. In Albuquerque, it was actually a .22 percent increase.

We also ran the numbers in Albuquerque against not just socioeconomic factors but how well the fellow students were performing. And there was even a higher advantage to that - test scores went up even more, .52 percent. Of course, all the "smarter" schools were also the higher-socioeconomic schools.

So, the difference between a poor student in Baltimore going to a school with 80 percent fellow poor students and going to a school with 80 percent fellow middle-class students is 11 percentile points on test scores. In Albuquerque, it would be 13 points. And, on the basis of how well classmates were performing, it would be 31 points there.

Whether it is 11 or 13 or 31, that's a big across-the-board change.

Can the state takeover have any impact on that?

Understand that what the state has total constitutional responsibility for is how local governments are organized, including school districts. They function by the rules of the game as laid down by the state government.

The most important thing going on in Baltimore is not the proposed state takeover of the 11 schools; it is the remedy phase of the federal case about segregation in public housing, Thompson v. HUD. There has to be a regional solution to that because the problem of the Baltimore region is not the level of poverty overall, it is the concentration of poverty. That's what makes the problems within the Baltimore city school system so severe.

But in the meantime, what can Baltimore do to get more middle-class kids into its system?

Well, there is some potential in the charter school movement because those do not get started without a cadre of very motivated and very involved parents, and that can be very encouraging to a new, young family moving in with kids.

Something we did in Albuquerque, in an aging, poor neighborhood near downtown that had this really neat housing supply, was work with this very savvy Hispanic neighborhood group when we were rebuilding the existing elementary school.

The school district put in a magnet-style program, with the city paying to run the school from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m., with an enrollment policy that explicitly stated [that] no more than half the kids could be from the neighborhood.

The other half were the children of downtown office workers, commuters who would rather drop their child in a school near to their work with quality after-school day care provided and pick them up when their workday was finished. They had no latchkey problem, no problem running home 10 miles away when the school nurse called. It was enormously popular, almost immediately oversubscribed.

So, you create this majority middle-class school almost instantly in this neighborhood. Then young families start moving in and buying these old Victorian houses and fixing them up because they have a school they can make a go of.

But some things are different in New Mexico. For one, the Albuquerque school district incorporates all of the surrounding county and even more, actually part of an adjacent county this is urbanizing. For another, there is no local tax money involved. The state finances all education. So if some child from one jurisdiction goes to school in another, there is no problem with the dollars following the child.

Still, in Baltimore, you have tons of workers at places like Johns Hopkins medical center, its university, the University of Maryland medical school, as well as downtown banks and law firms and financial institutions. The key is somehow getting the money to follow the kids from wherever they live. Then you can start to rebuild the city's middle-class core and re-attracting child-rearing families, rather than just young singles and older empty-nesters.

But if you are a parent in a suburban school system, happy with the education your kids are receiving, why would you be interested in anything that endangered that by trying to solve the problems of Baltimore's schools through some sort of economic balancing of its school population through a more diverse housing supply?

Well, if you are living in Howard County and have a good job, your kids in the county schools, who just once in a while come into the city for an Orioles game or to go the opera or take out-of-town guests to the Inner Harbor - if your worldview is that "I just want my life to hang together in a comfortable fashion with minimal threats until my kid graduates from high school" - then there is no argument in the world that is going to move you.

But if you are concerned about the long-term growth and competitiveness of the Baltimore region, about where your kid is going to live after college when he can't afford anything in Howard County the way it's going, or about the simple proposition that anyone good enough to work in a community ought to be able to live in that community, then I've got plenty of arguments.

The real question is, at what level do you place the responsibility for making those decisions? Ultimately, that level must be the state government.

Copyright 2006, The Baltimore Sun