Center Maryland: A budget debate: Balancing the investment in education versus public safety

Editor’s note: The following commentary appeared on CenterMaryland.org on June 3, 2016.

By Donald C. Fry

The school year is beginning to wind down and thoughts of summer vacations are on the minds of many, so talking about education funding and budgets may not be high on anyone’s priority list.

But a lively debate in Baltimore’s City Hall earlier this week over the amount of money included in the mayor’s proposed 2017 operating budget for public education presents an interesting question.

It is important to recognize that a proposed budget is more than just a set of numbers reflecting revenues and expenditures. A budget represents a statement of a government’s priorities and how that governmental body is positioning itself to achieve long-term social and economic benefits for its constituents.

This brings me to the debate that emerged at a Baltimore City Council hearing on Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s proposed $2.6 billion operating budget for the fiscal year 2017, which starts July 1 of this year.

Three council members – James Kraft, Mary Pat Clarke and Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young – stated publicly that they thought the administration should be spending more on public education and less on public safety.

“If we were proactive instead of reactive, we wouldn’t need all those police officers,” Young said, according to a news report in The Baltimore Sun.

“We’re spending a tremendous amount on the back end. How about we just turn it upside down now?” Kraft said.

The council members have an interesting point that’s worth exploring and engaging in a broader public dialogue about policies and priorities that a new administration and city council might want to champion.

Currently, Baltimore City spends more than double on public safety than it does on public education.

The proposed Baltimore City operating budget allocates 12 percent of operating expenditures for public education, according to the Fiscal 2017 Executive Summary and Board of Estimates’ Recommendations issued by the mayor’s office.

By contrast, the mayor’s 2017 operating budget allocates 28 percent of total expenditures to public safety, the city’s largest single operating expense, the summary shows.

It’s worth noting that Baltimore City allocates less of its operating budget to public education (which includes funding for public libraries) when compared to nearby jurisdictions.

All of this isn’t to propose that the city should start moving money from law enforcement to public education in the blind hope that increased educational funding will produce immediate results in crime reduction.

Public safety is a top priority and demands adequate funding for the manpower and resources needed to fight the excessive violent crime that continues to plague the city. The men and women in law enforcement need the appropriate level of financial support to carry out their public duty.

That said, there’s an argument to be made for elected officials in Baltimore City to dedicate more of the city’s operating budget on education over time, especially on the front end – early childhood education through high school.

The overall goal must be to ensure that all students are prepared to succeed in pursuit of a higher education degree or a career skill. Studies show that this road usually leads to economic stability and positive family and societal outcomes.

By charting a long-term course in this direction the city would be investing in a future where an increasing number of the city’s youth are poised for success and fewer will fall into joblessness.

Joblessness among young men in Baltimore, ages 20 to 24, is a daunting challenge. Currently, for African American men in this age group the unemployment rate is 37 percent. That is more than three times that of white males of similar age, according to 2013 U.S. Census Bureau data.

Addressing this unemployment issue with a high performing public education system might be an effective method to reduce the burden on the city’s public safety system. That is the thrust of the message being suggested by the members of the Baltimore City Council while examining the city’s budget priorities.

But, you can’t flip a switch and make this happen overnight.

First, there needs to be a vision and concrete strategy that includes teacher and school system accountability, as well as the monitoring of students after they graduate and move on to higher education, career training and jobs.

This would require patience and persistence, and the support and commitment of elected officials, communities and others for years or even decades.

Meanwhile, the city would need to strategically reduce the expenditures in public safety until the “fruits” of the enhanced educational investment took hold.

A number of studies have looked at the question of whether educational achievement yields crime reduction benefits. Some of the findings suggest a compelling argument that education can indeed be leveraged as a crime reduction tool – and yield other benefits for society.

The Justice Policy Institute (JPI), a nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C., reviewed a number of studies and FBI data and reported some interesting findings. While some of the findings are state-focused, they are equally relevant to cities, such as Baltimore, trying to get a handle on crime reduction.

Here are a few of the findings that were published in the 2007 JPI report, Education and Public Safety:

  • Graduation rates were associated with positive public safety outcomes. Researchers found that a 5 percent increase in male high school graduation rates would produce an annual savings of almost $5 billion in crime-related expenses.
  • States that had higher levels of educational attainment also had crime rates lower than the national average. Nine out of the 10 states with the highest percentage of population who had attained a high school diploma or above were found to have lower violent crime rates than the national average, compared to just four of the 10 states with the lowest educational attainment per population.
  • States with higher college enrollment rates experienced lower violent crime rates than states with lower college enrollment rates. Of the states with the 10 highest enrollment rates, nine had violent crime rates below the national average. Of the states with the lowest college enrollment rates, five had violent crime rates above the national average.
  • States that made bigger investments in higher education saw better public safety outcomes. Of the 10 states that saw the biggest increases in higher education expenditure, eight saw violent crime rates decline, and five saw violent crime decline more than the national average. Of the 10 states that saw the smallest change in higher education expenditure, the violent crime rate rose in five states.

As these findings suggest, higher educational attainment and career pathways can yield benefits in crime reduction.

The JPI report also noted that a study in the American Economic Review found that “a one year increase in the average years of schooling completed reduces violent crime by almost 30 percent, motor vehicle theft by 20 percent, arson by 13 percent and burglary and larceny by about 6 percent.”

There is no magic formula to reduce crime.

But investing in education and providing young people with the opportunity to advance academically and to develop career skills can yield dividends for communities and cities.

Although we often perceive a government’s budget as a mundane document comprised of pages of mind-numbing numbers, it is a statement of priorities to help address and shape the future.

As we imagine a city’s future, it’s hard to think of two more important goals than educating young minds and reducing crime. And that is what makes the debate over how much money is included in a budget to address these respective goals all the more relevant.

Donald C. Fry is the President and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee. He is a regular contributor to Center Maryland.

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