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ACLU, LDF, parents ask court to reopen Baltimore school funding case

Baltimore City College, a public high school in the city. (Hope Keller)

Baltimore City College, a public high school. (Hope Keller)

A group of parents and civil rights groups is petitioning to reopen a historic case concerning funding for Baltimore City Public Schools, the ACLU of Maryland announced Thursday.

The lawsuit, Bradford v. State of Maryland, led to the creation of the Thornton Commission and a statewide funding formula intended to help children from low-income families who needed special education and spoke English as a second language.

But the plaintiffs, a class of parents of students attending public schools in the city, say the city lacks the resources of other jurisdictions to supplement school maintenance and construction budgets and is unable to provide specialized facilities for modern educational needs such as technology and arts programs.

They contend the city’s public school students have been deprived of at least $2 billion that the court has ordered.

“Our children cannot wait any longer,” Dana Vickers Shelley, executive director of the ACLU of Maryland, said in a statement. “For decades, the State of Maryland has abdicated its responsibility to provide adequate funding for both instruction and to address the abysmal physical condition of school facilities in Baltimore City.”

The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund is also representing the plaintiffs.

A spokeswoman for the Maryland Office of the Attorney General declined to comment Thursday.

Bradford, filed in 1994 in Baltimore City Circuit Court, alleged that a lack of funding for city schools violated the “thorough and efficient” education clause in the Maryland Constitution, according to the ACLU of Maryland. In 1996, a judge found students were not receiving a constitutionally adequate education and the parties eventually entered a consent decree, later codified in the 1997 General Assembly session.

The court later found continued noncompliance by the state and extended its jurisdiction indefinitely until constitutional violations were addressed, according to the ACLU of Maryland.

The Thornton plan was created in 2002. More recently, education recommendations from the Kirwan Commission, which come with a $4 billion annual price tag, are the subject of legislation in the General Assembly. However, the Bradford plaintiffs expressed concern that the needs of students will not be “fully addressed” during this legislative session, which ends April 8.

Democratic legislators proposed a $1.1 billion education funding plan Monday, vowing to try to pay for the Kirwan recommendations. The proposal calls for $325 million in fiscal 2020 and an additional $750 million in fiscal 2021.

Lawmakers also want to set aside $500 million for school construction and renovation requests.

In the petition for further relief, the Bradford plaintiffs ask the court to declare that the state is continuing to violate the Maryland Constitution, that its current funding level for the Baltimore City Public School System, or BCPSS, is below constitutionally required levels, and that these conditions will persist until the state acts to remedy them.

“Despite this Court’s repeated declarations, the State has abdicated its responsibilities to provide adequate funding for instructional activities and to address the chronically abysmal physical condition of school facilities in Baltimore City,” the petition states. “State funding for BCPSS has largely stayed flat since FY 2009.”

The petition also asks the court to order the state to comply with prior rulings on funding requirements.

The plaintiffs alleged in January that the state had been in violation of the court’s orders for more than a decade.

In a letter to Gov. Larry Hogan, the ACLU and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund “expressed grave concern that that the State was not addressing either the massive gap between current and constitutionally-adequate educational funding or the immediate infrastructure needs of Baltimore City’s aging school buildings, which disproportionately harms students of color,” according to a news release from the ACLU of Maryland.

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