Anchored to Injustice: Public School Funding, Historical Amnesia, and our Imaginative Failures.

Without thinking for more than 3 seconds, estimate this product:

8 x 7 x 6 x 5 x 4 x 3 x 2 x 1

Now estimate the product below, in less than 3 seconds.

1 x 2 x 3 x 4 x 5 x 6 x 7 x 8

When researchers asked one group of high school students the first math question, and another group the second, the median answer was different by a factor of four (2,250 vs. 512), even though the answers are the same (40,320). Why? Since 8 was the starting point in the first sequence, it resulted in higher estimates than the exact same product with 1 as the sequence’s starting point.

Our brains are beholden to something called the anchoring effect, a cognitive bias that describes the human tendency to rely too heavily on the first piece of information offered (the “anchor”) when making decisions.

Sports agent extraordinaire Scott Boras uses this Jedi mind trick to full effect. When a player he represents enters free agency or is negotiating a new contract, the initial asking price he throws out is usually absurd and everyone knows it. In 2007 Boras told the New York Yankees he would not come to the table for less than 10 years and 350 million dollars for superstar Alex Rodriguez (the Yankees wanted to offer a 5-year, 150-million-dollar contract extension). The media scoffed at his over-the-top ask, but people kept talking about it. 350 million soon became the anchor by which we compared all offers. Rodriguez eventually signed a record setting, 10-year, 275 million dollar deal far beyond what the market and pundits predicted. The “compromise” that was reached could feel like a win for the Evil Empire because of how much lower it was than the initial ask. The Yankees weren’t dumb, just human. Even when we know anchoring is in play, we can’t stop from organizing our thoughts around it.

Anchoring is a tool used in politics as well. Baltimore City Public Schools CEO Sonia Santelises proactively anchored our conversation about BCPSS school funding with a thorough and effective public narrative. In it, she painted a bleak picture: decreased enrollment, rising teacher salary/benefit costs, mandated 21st century building and Pre-K funding all added up to a 130-million-dollar deficit which could lead to 1,000 layoffs over the summer. After weeks of letter writing, demonstrating, and advocating at the state house by community members, Annapolis leaders and the Mayor agreed on a $180 million funding package spread over the next 3 years.

Sixty million dollars for 2017! WHOA! Relative to the anchor of cutting 130 million from next year’s budget, this is a cause for celebration.

Or is it?

Let’s look at the same event, through a different lens. Let’s reset our anchor to one that acknowledges recent historical context, the state constitution, and the economic, political, and moral decisions and policy making of the past two decades. Instead of focusing on a single year deficit, let’s consider the sum of the deficits incurred over time, or what scholar Gloria Ladson Billings calls our “education debt.”(1)

The state has repeatedly and consistently underfunded Baltimore City Public Schools in violation of their own constitutional definition of adequacy, upheld by the courts multiple times.(2)

In 1996, Maryland Circuit Court Judge Joseph Kaplan found in Bradford vs. MD State Board of Education that “the public school children in Baltimore City are not being provided with an education that is adequate when measured by contemporary educational standards.” The Bradford plaintiffs and the State entered into a consent decree under which the State agreed to “provide a meaningful and timely remedy…to meet the best interests of the school children of Baltimore City.” The short-term funding fix agreed to (among other reforms) an infusion of funding for the following 4 years, and an opportunity to ask for further funding in 1999.

The school system submitted a plan explaining its need for an additional $260 m./year, a figure affirmed by both Judge Kaplan and the consulting firm Metis (picked by the state itself) to be an “adequate” per pupil expenditure. In 2002 based on the Thornton Commission’s study, a new education formula became law- one which was slated to deliver the $260 m. to Baltimore (along with over $1 billion to other school districts) over the next six years. The slow ramp-up of funding and a City Schools budget crisis led the court in 2004 to reaffirm the continued underfunding, and deliver a memorandum opinion stating that the “constitutional violation” was still in effect.

Between 2004–2008, funding was increased to meet adequacy requirements gradually rather than immediately. Furthermore, from 2009–2016 the state changed the per-pupil spending amount for inflation, in some years allowing no inflation increase at all, and did not consistently fund the Geographic Cost of Index element, further adding to the education debt.

Finally, between 2010–2017 the casino revenue put into the education trust fund did not match the actual budget increases for K-12 education.

Summarized below:

1996–2000 = $1,300,000,000 (Less than the Metis firm per pupil number)(3)

2001–2004 = $834,000,000 (Less than what the Thornton formula required)(4)

2004–2008 = Unknown (Gap from gradual rise instead of jumping right to adequacy)(5)

2009–2016 = $1,000,000,000 (Gap from not fully funding the Thornton formula)(6)

2010–2017 = Unknown (Casino revenue that didn’t make it to schools)(7)

When adding up this gross underfunding of BCPSS, which is nothing short of the crime of theft being committed against the predominantly Black youth who attend these schools, we reach a very rough education debt to Baltimore City of 3.2 BILLION DOLLARS!

Let’s remember that this astronomical number doesn’t even represent what excellent funding for our kids would look like. After all, Maryland’s private schools, that serve the wealthy and well-off children of the elite charge $25–40,000 a year!(8) We’re just talking about adequate funding, and we fall grotesquely short of even achieving that.

So is HB 684’s infusion of money really worthy of celebration? If our starting point — our anchor — is determined by simply following the law, then the end result of HB 684 is that BCPSS is receiving an additional cut beyond the inadequate and unconstitutionally low status quo of today, never mind the accumulated debt of the past 2 decades.

Imagine how much more our students could have accomplished with smaller class sizes, wrap around services, the arts, and enrichment opportunities that 3.2 billion would have allowed. How many more students would have stayed in school instead of dropping out? How much more stability would our buildings have if teachers weren’t overwhelmed and under-resourced, leading to a regular exodus of veteran educators? How many more families would stay in the city if they could send their kids to a well-resourced local public school?

These questions haven’t been considered because the anchoring effect creates a gravitational pull on our minds towards past narratives and actions. Tragically in Baltimore that means a history of injustice and false claims of poverty whenever the government has to equitably fund black children’s education. It has even our best advocates accept an ahistorical framing, focusing on one year deficits and blaming red herrings rather than addressing the real issue.

Inadequate education for poor people and black people is a practice that goes back to the founding of our country. African Americans were forbidden an education during the period of enslavement. After emancipation, freedmen’s schools existed, but their purpose was the maintenance of a servant class. During our long period of legal apartheid, African Americans attended schools whose only materials were the old cast-offs from White schools. In areas in need of farm labor the typical school year was only four months long. Black students in the south did not experience universal secondary schooling until 1968. (9)

If the imaginations of our current leaders lack the strength to escape the gravitational pull of the anchoring effect, then we need to re-set their anchors, first by re-setting our own. Let’s repeat to ourselves over and over again that this current crisis has been manufactured over decades by the illicit failures and racist policies of our national and local governments, and is only the most recent iteration of our failure to live up to our country’s ideals of democracy and equity.

Let’s remember that 130 million dollars is nothing compared to the 3.2 billion dollars that we can prove is owed to the district (let alone monies owed due to previous underfunding). Let’s address once and for all the legally required adequate annual funding and historical education debt.


(1) Ladson-Billings, Gloria. “From the achievement gap to the education debt: Understanding achievement in US schools.” Educational researcher 35.7 (2006): 3–12.


(3) 1996–2000: In 2000 Metis number says we need 260 million more per year, 260 x 5 = 1.3 billion

(4) 2001–2004: 834.7 million comes from the 2004 memorandum opinion, assuming a 2,600 per pupil number. “(7) for FY 2001 through 2004, the State underfunded BCPS by $439.4 million to $834.7 million (depending on whether $2,000 or $2,600 was used);”

(5) 2005–2008: According to the fiscal note that accompanied the Thornton Bill, “State aid to the local school systems would increase by nearly $148 million in FY 2004, $364 million in FY 2005, $639 million in FY 2006, $948 million in FY 2007, and $1.3 billion in FY 2008. For the six-year phase-in period, Baltimore City would receive $375.2 million more than it received in FY 2002, an increase of 64%.” Since we don’t know exactly what Baltimore would have received had they not phased in gradually, I didn’t include the difference in my final 3.2 billion number.

(6) 2008–2015: We do know the adequacy gaps in 2011 and 2015 because DLS ran the numbers (70 million and 290 million respectively). There were many complicating factors that make the total gap between 2008–2015 difficult to precisely calculate, as DLS did not do those calculations for the other years. However, for the sake of finding a rough number, we can assume an average growth between the benchmarks to get the following:

a. FY08- $17.5 (in millions)

09- $35

10- $52.5

11- $70

12- $125

13- $180

14- $235

15- $290

Total: $1,005,000,000

(7) The difference between education trust fund inputs from casino revenue and actual increase in MD K-12 spending between 2009–2017 was 721 million according to (This was also not included in the 3.2 billion number since it’s difficult to know how much of that total number would have ended up at BCPSS)

(8) A sampling of local private schools.

a. Jemicy

b. Gilman

c. Sidwell Friends

(9) Anderson, James D. Historical perspectives on Black academic achievement. 2002.