Zero-Basing Public Schools, Free-Basing Education Policy

There was a tale of two school districts on display at Baltimore's Walters Art Museum on Saturday morning. The occasion was Congressman Elijah Cummings's annual arts competition--an event in which students from high schools across his Congressional district submit their best work in the hopes of winning the honor of having their art hang in the bowels of the U.S. Capitol for one year.

After the competition was over, a young woman who teaches art in a Baltimore middle school remarked that it was amazing that any of the city's students were competitive given the circumstances. She said at her school, "there were no art supplies except some old spoiled tempera paint and paper when I arrived." When I asked her how she secured the supplies necessary to conduct class, she admitted that she "paid out-of-pocket for some supplies and scavenged for the rest."

She went on to say she had only been teaching for two years and the school district was "zero-basing" her school for the second year in a row. Zero-basing is a practice in which the school district terminates all of the teachers and administrators in a school that is labeled failing and requires them to reapply for their positions for the next academic year. "They are herding teachers and students around like we are the hopes that things will eventually get better [on the academic front]," she said.

Midway through our conversation, her boyfriend came over and described a similar scenario at his high school. He said that the honorable mention award that one of his students received was bittersweet since, "they will be closing my high school down at this end of this year [due to academic failure]."

I didn't have time to digest the implications of my conversation with these two committed young art teachers before I began another conversation with the mother of a high school art student in the Howard County Public School System, an affluent district in the Baltimore suburbs. The mother proudly held up her daughter's framed canvas and told me how exciting it was to see her daughter discover her talent. She enthused, "you wouldn't believe the resources they have to support the art students in [my daughter's] school."

The tragic irony in the contrasting accounts is reinforced in Howell S. Baum's new book Brown in Baltimore: School Desegregation and the Limits of Liberalism. In the book, Baum recounts in aching detail the origins and evolution of Baltimore's racially segregated, poorly equipped, and underperforming schools. He discusses the combined effects of wealth disparities, residential segregation, racial anxieties, and the politics of both challenge and accommodation that converged to create a school system that was among the first in the nation to voluntarily "desegregate" following the 1954 Brown decision while also coming under repeated scrutiny from the U.S. Office of Civil Rights in the 1970s for its failure to achieve racial integration.

Although Baum's book is primarily a historical account that offers no policy prescriptions for addressing the school system's current predicament, it does offer an interesting departure from which we can judge the adequacy of the No Child Left Behind law and the Obama Administration's approach to school reform--both of which adopt penalties for schools labeled "failing" or "challenged" without regard to how state and local policies and practices have contributed to deep-seated academic and institutional inequities.

The No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law, which equates the quality of schools with student achievement on reading and math tests, requires that schools undergo a series of correctional measures when students fail to make Adequate Yearly Progress on the standardized tests. The "zero-basing" policy employed by Baltimore City Public Schools is a direct result of this federal requirement. It has been widely acknowledged that for many schools NCLB has also resulted in a narrowing of the curriculum that has squeezed out the arts along with other student enrichment opportunities.

Unfortunately, the Obama Administration's approach to reform is likely to intensify instability for Baltimore students in coming years by embracing mandatory school "turnaround models"--that include variations on firing teachers and administrators and closing down schools--for the lowest performing 5 percent of public schools. Prominent education policy experts Linda Darling-Hammond of Stanford University and Pedro Noguera of New York University, have been quick to point out that--although well-intentioned--the Administration's proposed turnaround models have no basis in research and are likely to further undermine the educational progress of the primarily low-income students of color attending these schools.

The stories of deprivation shared by the Baltimore City art teachers are consistent with Baum's portrait of a school system that remains separate and unequal. And yet, despite pervasive evidence of systemic inequalities undermining public education in some areas of the country, the Obama Administration has so far failed to leverage its unprecedented federal investment in K-12 education to enhance the competitiveness of these schools by incentivizing states to level resource inequities across districts.

So, what's next for the middle school art teacher? She said that, even though she loves her students, she wouldn't be reapplying to her school next year because she didn't know who the principal would be or whether that person would be committed to the arts. "I feel sorry for my students," she told me. "They know that I won't be around next year and they don't know what's coming next."

Dr. Maya Rockeymoore Cummings is the President and CEO of Global Policy Solutions, a social change strategy firm based in Washington, DC.