“An unjust law is a code that a majority inflicts on a minority that is not binding on itself. This is difference made legal.” Letter from a Birmingham Jail Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Ultimately, how our state chooses to address the educational needs of all children concerns us not only as citizens, but as immortal beings. Our fates are wrapped up in the fates of the most powerless among us, those who cannot vote. True equity and adequacy of educational opportunity for all children is in both the spirit and the letter of the Bridge to Excellence Act. However, it must be noted that the Free State still allows “difference” to be made legal in the schoolhouse and it would honor Dr. King’s memory if that could be changed.
Because “class size” is not classified a “working condition” in the state of Maryland, neighboring school systems can have different staffing ratios that create vastly different learning environments for children. Equity does not exist when our school system can only afford to hire forty-seven teachers per thousand students and their school system is able to afford more than sixty teachers per thousand. Delivering instruction to thirty-plus economically disadvantaged students will never be the same job as teaching twenty, or fewer, affluent students with access to a superfluity of resources.
Nor is there adequacy when our school system must choose gasoline for the school buses OR books for the media center and their school system manages to budget for both. Such inequities have existed in Maryland for decades and the cascade of effects all roll down on student achievement as a result of teacher burnout and teacher turnover in the understaffed and inadequately equipped jurisdictions.
Half a century after Brown vs. the Board of Education, it is simply unconscionable that this society permits children-of-color and children-of-poverty to attend schools that are ill-prepared to deliver the services mandated by both the state and the nation and that misguided business model accountability measures threaten to do even further harm. This practice constitutes “difference made legal”.
It is no longer a mystery that the most effective schools tend to be blessed with greater resources – both human and material – the only mystery is why our political structure cannot achieve consensus on how to make those resources available to every child in every school. This despite the mandate of Article 8 in the Constitution of Maryland “The General Assembly, at its First Session after the adoption of this Constitution, shall by Law establish throughout the State a thorough and efficient System of Free Public Schools; and shall provide by taxation, or otherwise, for their maintenance.”
The passion that helped fill the streets of Annapolis in support of the Thornton recommendations must be rekindled, and we must call on our legislators to have the courage to stand for all children. Article 8, too, is a promissory note, not unlike the one described in Dr. King’s most famous speech. Maryland has made great strides in moving toward equity in the schoolhouse, though to be truly just on the moral plane, a thorough and efficient system of free public schools must render “sameness” legal for all parties.
[The original version of this Commentary appeared in the Prince George’s Gazette in 2015.]