“An unjust law is a code that a majority inflicts on a minority that is not binding on itself. This is difference made legal.”
Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Letter from a Birmingham Jail
Enacted in response to the report of the Thornton Commission, the Bridge to Excellence Act promised equity of educational opportunity for all children in the state of Maryland. During the coming session that opens so close to the holiday in honor of the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr., let us implore both houses of the Maryland legislature to give serious consideration to the 620 page report of the Kirwan Commission which outlines the need for an increase of $2.6 billion to be invested in children.
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. To paraphrase Dr. King, we cannot become all that we might become until all our children become all they are destined to become.
True equity & adequacy of educational opportunity for all children is in both the spirit and the letter of the Bridge to Excellence Act. The conclusions of Dr. Alvin Thornton’s celebrated commission made it clear. Dr. Thornton once said “We know the characteristics of successful, well-resourced schools; we simply allow lesser schools to exist.” 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 remedied.
Because, long ago, “class size” was ruled not to be a “working condition” in the state of Maryland, neighboring school systems may avail themselves of different staffing ratios that create vastly different learning environments for children. There is no equity when my school system can only afford to hire forty-seven teachers per thousand students and your jurisdiction is able to afford sixty teachers per thousand. Teaching thirty-to-forty economically disadvantaged students will never be the same job as teaching twenty, or fewer, affluent students with access to a superfluity of resources at home.
Nor is there adequacy when my school system must choose between gasoline for the school buses or books for the media center while your school system manages to budget for both. Maryland has allowed such margins to exist for decades and the cascade of effects all roll down on teachers and students. The response of teacher burnout and teacher turnover in the understaffed and inadequately-equipped jurisdictions yield adverse effects on student achievement. That is difference made legal.
Six decades after Brown vs. the Board of Education, it is simply unconscionable that too many children-of-color and children-of-poverty attend schools that are ill-prepared to deliver the services mandated by the state, the nation, and our stipulated moral values. Sadly, business model accountability measures threaten to deliver only a stick where carrots are required. In ‘The Purpose of Education’ Dr. King wrote, “Education must enable a man to become more efficient, to achieve with increasing facility the legitimate goals of his life.”
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 in all zip codes. Article 8, too, is a constitutional promissory note, not unlike the one alluded to by Dr. King in his most famous speech. Maryland has made 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 make “sameness” legal for all children and the time for social justice for children is always “right now”.
[The original version of this Viewpoint appeared in the now defunct Prince George’s Journal during January 2008. It has been revised for “timeliness”… ]