Every winter, education advocates across Maryland hit the streets to educate parents and residents on funding cuts on the table for their neighborhood schools.
The Baltimore Education Coalition (BEC) is made up of organizations from across Baltimore City that improve public schools. GHCC was a founding member of the BEC when it formed in 2009, together with organizations like BUILD, Child First Authority, and the ACLU of Maryland.
Jimmy Stuart is an AmeriCorps*VISTA member working in Success Academy, an alternative high school located at the Baltimore City Schools headquarters on North Avenue. As a VISTA, Jimmy is building sustainability in Success Academy’s programs—he sees firsthand how important adequate funding is to maintaining good schools. VISTA guidelines dictate that Jimmy can’t join BEC, but he can help lay the foundation for an active and engaged group of city residents and parents. Today we caught up with Jimmy to ask him about his work.
You’re an AmeriCorps*VISTA member—what does this mean in terms of restrictions on your personal involvement in advocacy efforts?
As a VISTA, I’m prevented from doing anything that ties the VISTA name or image to a political cause. In my project this year, I’m improving the quality and sustainability of programs provided to students at Success Academy, an alternative high school run by Baltimore City Schools. I’m involved with the BEC because funding for schools is directly tied to the goals of my project. In that capacity, I can inform people in the community about how to get involved with this work. I can talk about the BEC, help run meetings, and organize actions. But the actions themselves have to come from BEC members, not me. Simply put, I can tell people how to get to the bus to Annapolis, but I can’t get on the bus myself.
Your role is all about giving others a voice and making sure Baltimore’s citizens are engaged in the legislative process. How does this make you feel at the end of the day? Do you prefer empowering others over being on the front lines, or is it a struggle not to get your hands dirty?
Even if I was doing direct advocacy, the work would be pointless if we weren’t focused on informing others so they know what it means to be advocates for themselves. The need is too great for anyone to do this alone—Baltimore needs a loud, strong voice for our schools. Funding for education affects me, but many other people in this city are closer to the issue than I am. Providing people who are closest to the problem with the information to affect change is going to yield far better results than anything I could do on my own.
Sure, I’ll be disappointed I can’t get on the buses to Annapolis with our community members. But the experience of inspiring people and getting them to that point is something that I’ll carry with me much longer than that momentary disappointment.
What is your favorite aspect of GHCC’s advocacy work? What have you learned during your tenure here?
What I appreciate most about GHCC’s advocacy work is our awareness of the many different issues affect each other and affect our work. Advocacy often gets broken down into smaller and smaller compartments—you meet people who are passionate about one issue, and one issue only. At GHCC, there’s an understanding that many issues affect our work, and if we want to do our work well, we can’t just plug away on one of them. It all matters.
The quality of our public schools affects us all. Sometimes we think that funding for schools only matters if those schools educate our own children or cut our paychecks. Excellent public schools are critical to building strong and vibrant urban communities. Every family should be excited about sending their children to their neighborhood school. If we want people to invest in this city—to buy and care for a home, to open a quality business, to get involved in their community—we need strong public schools.
Give us a little background on the current education funding crisis and how BEC is trying to help.
It’s an unfortunate fact, but each year school communities are challenged to do more and more with less and less. The state proposes cuts every year, but the cuts this year could be worse than the city has seen in a long time. Not only could the city lose a significant amount of direct funding for schools, but there is a push at the state level to transfer the cost of teacher pensions from the state to local school districts—an incredible expense for city schools to take on.
The state of Maryland is facing a $1.6 billion budget shortfall—a hole in state spending that has been plugged up by stimulus money for the last two years. There is going to be enormous pressure within the state legislature to cut spending—including spending for schools—when the budget is introduced in January.
For this coming budget session, the BEC has three goals: to maintain current funding for Baltimore City Public Schools; to get elected officials to develop a comprehensive funding plan for the school facilities improvement plan proposed by the ACLU; and to encourage Baltimore’s delegates to work better together on protecting our schools.
The event on Thursday is a workshop and action. We have targeted key leaders in our school communities to attend the event. We hope to provide them with a clear sense of the potential funding crisis, and to collaborate on how to get people from our communities involved in preventing cuts and improving school facilities. The event will also be an opportunity to celebrate our schools and to get people fired up about our work.
The pressure to cut funding is going to be very strong this year, and those cuts could be devastating for our public schools. I hope people walk away with a sense of hopeful urgency—that it can be done, but it will require all the strength we can muster to do it.
If you are interested in attending the workshop and action at Digital Harbor High School this Thursday, or learning more about the work of the Baltimore Education Coalition, please contact Jimmy at 410.929.3657 or firstname.lastname@example.org.