Federal

Cabinet Officials Offer Aid Assurances After Baltimore Unrest

By Alyson Klein — May 12, 2015 5 min read
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan stands among students at a press conference at Frederick Douglass High School in Baltimore, after a meeting with federal officials that touched on issues ranging from recent unrest in the city to job opportunities.

Can the federal government—including the U.S. Department of Education—do anything to help communities like Baltimore and Ferguson, Mo., recover from civil unrest spurred by fatal interactions between citizens and police officers?

The short answer to that question appears to be yes, at least according to policymakers who visited Frederick Douglass High School in Baltimore last week, including U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez, and U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md.

But the longer answer—exactly what shape federal help could take—is still emerging.

The policymakers traveled to the city in the aftermath of rioting April 27 following the death earlier in the month of Freddie Gray, 25, who suffered a spinal injury while in police custody.

The Education Department, for example, is talking to Baltimore about the process of applying for funds available through Project School Emergency Response to Violence program, or Project SERV, intended for communities recovering from traumatic events. (Schools in Newtown, Conn., the site of the 2012 fatal mass shooting at an elementary school, recently received assistance from the program.)

Mr. Perez said the federal government had provided some $5 million in aid, for job training and other purposes, to Ferguson in the aftermath of racially charged riots last year that ignited when an unarmed black teenager was shot and killed by a white police officer.

There could be similar resources, he said, for Baltimore, although the Labor Department is still mulling specifics.

“We are seeking to replicate the model we just put in place,” Mr. Perez said at a May 6 news conference during the visit that was streamed live on the internet. “Our goal is to get these resources out with alacrity, and we want to make sure there is significant flexibility” for local communities to ensure that any new money is targeted where it should be.

And Mr. Perez made a big pitch for federal involvement in helping restore Baltimore communities after prolonged violence. But, he said, “money is not enough. The development of a holistic plan that reflects the values of the community of Baltimore is indispensable.”

Mr. Duncan, meanwhile, added that many students in low-income communities like those in West Baltimore could benefit from greater access to after-school and recreational programs, mentors, and adult role models.

“We need to think about not just a little pilot program, not just a small thing, but at scale,” Mr. Duncan said, although he did not provide specifics.

The cabinet officials’ comments echoed President Barack Obama’s recent statements on the turmoil in Baltimore. The president said that while there’s no excuse for violence, it’s clear that urban high-poverty areas need greater attention and assistance, including when it comes to K-12 schools.

Voices Heard

At last week’s Baltimore press conference, Gregory Thornton, the CEO of the 85,000-student Baltimore City school district, said just getting a call from Mr. Duncan in the wake of turmoil following Mr. Gray’s death was a big help. “He said, ‘What can we do, what can Washington do? '" Mr. Thornton said.

Before the press conference, Mr. Duncan, Mr. Perez, and others met privately with community members and Baltimore students to hear their concerns. That meeting itself mattered, one student said.

“I really wanted to come here because I wanted to have my voice heard,” said Jade Malonga, a junior at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School. “I personally told them that we need to have meetings with important people, there needs to be a group of youth that have their voices heard.”

The violence has had repercussions for the school district. In addition to city schools being closed the day after the rioting, a number of surrounding districts canceled field trips to Baltimore. Since schools reopened, the district has provided materials to teachers to help students process and discuss the events. Federal money isn’t a new resource for Baltimore. The city school district has been a nexus of sorts for Obama administration competitive-grant programs focused on education. The district takes part in Maryland’s $250 million Race to the Top grant, which has financed comprehensive education redesign projects aimed at improving teacher quality, using student data to improve instruction, and fixing low-performing schools. Baltimore also participates in the School Improvement Grant program, as well as Investing in Innovation grants, which are aimed at scaling up promising practices at the district level.

Differing Visions

At the Douglass High School press conference, federal officials mentioned the White House’s “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative, which is aimed at improving outcomes for boys of color.

But former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who is actively exploring a run for the GOP presidential nomination, outlined a different set of solutions for Baltimore City’s problems in an op-ed that ran in the Chicago Tribune on May 6. He said the first order of business is to “build up families” so that there are more two-parent households.

And then, he said, policymakers must improve education—but not necessarily by allocating more resources. “Baltimore spends more than $15,000 per student each school year,” Mr. Bush wrote. “That is more than virtually every developed nation in the world spends. And the third-highest for a large school system in America. Yet Baltimore’s results are among the worst.”

Instead, he said, the federal government should be encouraging business development in impoverished communities, by reducing regulation and red tape.

But Robert Balfanz, a research professor at the Center for the Social Organization of Schools at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, said that a small federal investment in Baltimore’s schools and surrounding community could have a measurable impact, as long as there is real local buy-in and sustained implementation.

“How many 17-year-olds that live in distressed areas have any sort of hope and pathway to post-secondary anything?” Mr. Balfanz asked. “If you focus on just the most distressed neighborhoods, you might be talking about [providing] supportive pathways for a thousand 17-year-olds. It’s not a small ask, but it’s a pretty contained ask.”

But he added, “You’ve got to have a local solution behind it, because the feds are not going to be around forever.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 13, 2015 edition of Education Week as Cabinet Officials Offer Assurances After Baltimore Unrest

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