More than 350 parents, teachers, and activists turned out on a snowy night last week to organize opposition to Governor Larry Hogan’s plan to cut $35 million in funding to Baltimore City Public Schools.
The gathering at the new Waverly Elementary/Middle School was sponsored by The Baltimore Education Coalition, a group of over 20 nonprofits, from after-school programs and charter schools to the League of Women Voters and the American Civil Liberties Union.
In five years, the coalition, or BEC, has become a force, thwarting $125 million in proposed cuts, and winning a funding stream of up to $1 billion to renovate or rebuild decrepit schools. They were joined last week by Baltimore schools CEO Gregory Thornton, who called on the crowd to fight the proposed cuts. “Because you know, everyone says you should be able to do more with less,” Thornton said, “But I want to be clear tonight: You do less with less.”
Many attendees were first-time activists, like Vivian Chu. “I feel like this is something that’s worth fighting for,” she says. “I work full time, have two little kids, don’t have a lot of capacity to knock on doors and that kind of thing. But I feel like this is important enough to make the time, to make our voice heard.” This year, Chu and her husband narrowly decided to send their kindergartner to Mount Royal Elementary, their neighborhood public school, because of improvements they’ve seen there in the past few years. Now, she sees those changes threatened. She called her local delegates to express opposition to the cuts, and took home a stack of protest postcards addressed to Governor Hogan, Senate President Mike Miller, and House Speaker Mike Busch. When she hit up 30 of her colleagues at T. Rowe Price to sign them, their response surprised her. “It was universally positive. And I’m talking positive from people I know are, like, really conservative Republicans verging on Tea Party people, to friends who are liberal and progressive like myself,” she says. “People who have kids in Baltimore City don’t want these cuts to happen.”
The ACLU of Maryland says the proposed cuts would roll per-pupil funding for city schools back 5 years – which could mean a loss of more than 400 teachers, or 700 staff members. Some critics say the cuts fall so disproportionately on Baltimore City schools, they must be retribution for a city that voted largely against the new governor. Budget secretary David Brinkley says he can see why people might think that – but it’s absolutely not the case. All of the funding options the administration looked at, he says, involved a reduction for Baltimore City schools. “From my perspective, and when you look at the numbers, the concept that there was any type of punitive action is absolutely absurd,” says Brinkley. “In fact, when we looked at all the choices that we had, we chose the one that had the least impact on the city, and also across the state.”
Karen DeCamp, one of BEC’s founders, and director of neighborhood programs at Greater Homewood Community Corporation, says schools must come first. “If we want this city to be healthy and to be growing, this is our priority. There is nothing else,” she says. “You start with schools and then you move on from there.”
Whether the group can persuade lawmakers of that is an open question. But Jared Billings, who was often lobbied by BEC when he was director of education policy for former governor Martin O’Malley, is impressed. Usually, he says, coalitions as diverse as BEC split up after resolving a single issue. This one has only grown in scope and influence. “And there’s power there,” he says. “When different groups that have different theories of action come together and say: ‘We all agree on these things,’ people on the side of making policy listen.”
This morning – and every Friday morning and Monday evening until March 15th – BEC activists plan to travel to Annapolis to lobby lawmakers. Some, like Chu, for the very first time.