I’m sure I fried some brain cells reading through the lawsuits (original and amended) filed as a taxpayer action against the Baltimore City public schools by a West Baltimore couple, Jovani and Shawnda Patterson. I reference the Patterson suit in my column about the political actions of members of the wealthy family that owns the Sinclair Broadcast Group. There are connections between Sinclair, its Baltimore TV station, Fox 45, Jovani Patterson and the lawsuit. I’m sure I’ll be learning more about these connections in the coming days.
As I state in the column, the lawsuit reads like a screed against the public schools and, after reading through both versions of it, I conclude a few of things: The suit was brought based almost exclusively on Fox 45 reporting about problems with the schools, in an apparent effort to give those reports a second life and provide opportunity for more reporting of school problems by the station’s news operation; the plaintiffs seem to expect a Baltimore judge to simply order the school system to do better (or enjoin it from doing worse), as if such a thing is possible in a large, underfunded system with long-standing challenges. The suit lists a lot of problems, but no answers. It doesn’t get at the systemic issues that have been identified by people who have worked seriously and tirelessly toward improving educational outcomes for some of the poorest children in Maryland.
I asked Kalman “Buzzy” Hettleman what he thought of the suits, and the city’s responses, and he gave me his perspective. It appears below. It is well worth reading.
Buzzy Hettleman was a member of the Maryland Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education (the Kirwan Commission), a former city school board member, a former deputy mayor of Baltimore and a former Maryland secretary of Human Resources. He writes regularly on education for Maryland Matters.
The Baltimore City school system has many deep, urgent problems. But, sad to say, the Patterson lawsuit is not a well-researched or credible way to address them.
The suit alleges that the city school system is “failing to properly educate Baltimore City’s children,” but no one doubts that. There are major ongoing efforts – such as the Kirwan Commission, the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, and the Bradford case in the Baltimore Circuit Court – that seek to fulfill the civil right of every child to a constitutionally adequate education.
These efforts dig deep to get at the systemic roots of the problem. A big one is lack of funding for early childhood education, high quality teachers, small class sizes, academic and behavioral interventions for students with special needs, facilities, security and the myriad other elements of a quality education. And just more money isn’t enough: there must be more accountability to ensure that the funds are well spent.
Similar efforts to address the constitutional right to an adequate education have occurred in almost every state and large city in the country, with some notable recent successes based on the “right to read.”
The Patterson lawsuit, on the other hand, is based almost exclusively on claims that city schools have made administrative errors in school enrollment, truancy rules, grade inflation and social promotion.
True, errors, some large and some small, have occurred, but what large education bureaucracy or other public (or private) agency hasn’t been cited for administrative missteps?
What’s more, city schools have owned up to the mistakes and taken corrective steps.
There seems a fairly obvious explanation why the Patterson lawsuit focuses only on small bore mistakes rather than seeking the systemic remedies sought in the Kirwan, Blueprint and Bradford actions and similar actions in other states and cities. The allegations are based almost entirely on Fox 45 reports, and the right-wing leanings of Fox 45 are a matter of well-known record.
From all these facts, it seems fair to conclude that the lawsuit is more a political publicity stunt to discredit the city (a favorite right-wing tactic) than a credible, or achievable, path to equity and adequacy for city students.
The ultimate shame of it is not that the lawsuit will fail, as it almost certainly will. Its greatest fault is that it is distracting time and attention from far more substantial reforms.
The Pattersons could have chosen to try to team up on Blueprint implementation and the Bradford case. That’s the real fight and hope for city schoolchildren.