By Newt Gingrich
The current Baltimore cannot be fixed.
However, a new successful Baltimore might be invented.
Let’s start with two reminders of reality: The problem is big; and a lot of smart, decent, dedicated people who have invested their lives and money have still been defeated by the problems.
The truth is: Baltimore is a disaster.
Drug addiction and fatalities have skyrocketed. Baltimore has the highest opioid fatality rate in the country. It also has the highest murder rate in the country per capita. It has an underfunded, inadequately sized police force that is deeply distrusted by the people who most need its help – thanks in part to a current corruption scandal. There is no stability in the police force, as there have been five police commissioners in the four years since Freddie Gray died.
As the murder rate reached almost 14 times the per capita rate in New York City, former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley told the Economist the number of police in Baltimore fell from a high of 3,278 in 2002 to 2,514 now. The unofficial motto of the city seems to be “crime up, cops down.”
Since 2007, there have been 3,359 people killed in Baltimore. If Mayor Giuliani’s compstat policing reforms had been applied to Baltimore, 2,519 of those people might be alive today (under Giuliani the murder rate dropped 75% in New York City, and it dropped even further under Mayor Bloomberg).
And finally, as the Economist reported: “Of those murdered in 2018, 84% had previous arrest records—as did 86% of the suspects.”
So, why did 2,519 Baltimoreans have to die unnecessarily?
It’s partly because Baltimore has schools that fail to have a single student performing at grade level – even while the system is spending $16,184 per student.
As Sanford Horn wrote for The Federalist:
“Incompetent so-called leaders and teachers’ unions have corrupted the public school system. They hide behind tenure while indoctrinating students instead of educating them, condemning the next generation to the consequences of the corrupt and broken system they created. It’s not all their fault, though: the children they teach have largely grown up in chaotic homes that do not value learning.”
We were warned about the collapse of schools a generation ago. In 1983, The Reagan administration issued A Nation at Risk warning that:
“If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war. As it stands, we have allowed this to happen to ourselves. … We have, in effect, been committing an act of unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament.
Our society and its educational institutions seem to have lost sight of the basic purposes of schooling, and of the high expectations and disciplined effort needed to attain them.”
I participated in press conferences and workshops launching A Nation at Risk 36 years ago. After a generation of effort, disasters like Baltimore have convinced me that we cannot reform the teachers’ union and the bureaucracy which protects it.
From the standpoint of the teachers’ union, the system works perfectly because it pays salaries on time – no matter how many children’s lives are destroyed through a lack of learning.
Furthermore, in most cities the teachers’ unions are the most powerful local power center and can make it too expensive for elected officials to try to reform them. In many ways, the corruption of the school systems, which take money for work not accomplished, is at the heart of the sickness of our most self-destructive cities.
Endemic corruption throughout the local government means a lot of the business community accepts and sustains corruption (politicians don’t bribe themselves).
While there are areas of excellence and prosperity in Baltimore (John Hopkins University and Medical Center for example) they are islands in a sea of poverty, despair, and disfunction. Nearly 81,000 of Baltimore’s 480,000 adults do not have a diploma (and many with a diploma can’t perform at the education level the diploma implies).
The death of Freddie Gray in April 2015, and the riots which followed, spurred a serious effort to turn things around for the poverty- and crime-ridden parts of Baltimore.
President Obama and his administration went to work. Governor Hogan provided state level leadership and funds. Congressman Elijah Cummings worked hard to draw attention to Baltimore’s needs. A number of local leaders committed themselves to helping Baltimore recover. Then, as Erin Cox reported in The Washington Post, “Years before Trump’s attacks, Freddie Gray’s death sparked a huge effort to heal Baltimore. It wasn’t enough.”
The Cox article is a useful outline of the passion, resources, courage, and personal time different people poured into Baltimore in response to what had become an overwhelming crisis. Ultimately, it failed and, if anything, left the reformers more depressed and more discouraged than ever.
Given these realities, I think it is virtually impossible to reform the current Baltimore system. The corruption is too great, the bureaucracies are too powerful, the culture of despair and dependency is too widespread, and the stunning decentralization of authority and activism is too great.
As David Warnock of the Warnock Foundation wrote to me:
“Until the citizens of Baltimore demand better educational outcomes, and that political leaders stand up to the educational status quo that produces some of the worst K-6 outcomes in the country, we are not going to end the cycle of violence in our city and create young people prepared for today’s job market. At Green Street Academy, only two — count ‘em two — out of 125 children who will start with us this fall in 6th grade read at grade level. They were chosen by lottery. Google the probability of a high-quality life if you can’t read by third grade if you want to see the future of Baltimore unless we get serious about educational reform.”
Faced with a problem this large, I always turn to two great leaders and their advice on solving really hard problems.
President Eisenhower said, “Whenever I run into a problem I can’t solve; I always make it bigger.”
Albert Einstein asserted, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”
We should take the advice of Eisenhower and Einstein and make the problem of Baltimore even bigger and then suggest a dramatically new and different plan for getting to a prosperous, safe, educated, healthy, and honest Baltimore.
We owe it to the children whose futures are being crippled in bad schools, the families whose incomes are being crippled in neighborhoods without jobs, and those whose lives are being threatened by a totally unacceptable level of violence to have the courage to follow Eisenhower and Einstein down a path of new solutions and new courage.