The Baltimore City Public School System (BCPSS) is one of the most historic public school districts in the United States. Prayer in U.S. public schools was banned as the result of a suit filed by the parent of a Baltimore City school student and racial integration came to a Baltimore City public high school two years before Brown v Board of Education. The BCPSS is home to the oldest all girls public high school in the country and to the third oldest high school overall. It serves the youth of the city of Baltimore (distinct from the county of Baltimore).
The general school law of 1826 empowered the mayor and City Council of Baltimore to establish a separate system of public or primary schools in the city. It was not until March 1828, however, that an ordinance was passed creating a Board of Commissioners of Public Schools invested with power to establish and regulate a system of free public schools for the City of Baltimore. The Board of School Commissioners was elected annually by the City Council. By the mid 1850s, the growth of the system made it difficult for this group of laymen to perform their functions effectively. Duties of the superintendence gradually became part of the responsibilities of the Treasurer of the Board. The office of treasurer was abolished in 1866, and John N. Milton was appointed the first Superintendent of Public Instruction.
The class system of instruction was introduced and the services of the schools were expanded to include secondary schools for girls; separate primary schools for beginning students; and a nautical school for boys. The program for boys’ high school was increased to five years and that of the girls' to four years.
The total school budget grew from less than twenty-five thousand dollars, in 1840, to more than a quarter of a million dollars in, 1865, and the main sources of revenue were derived from a municipal school tax and from tuition fees. However, salaries of the professional staff remained low. The number of public schools increased from nine, in 1839, to eighty-eight in 1866; and their total enrollment grew from 1,226 to 18,307.
During the superintendency of Dr. David E. Weglein, 1925-1946, Baltimore schools were molded into a unified system. Curricular offerings were organized in terms and courses of study were developed to assist teachers plan meaningful learning experiences. During the superintendency of William H. Lemmel, 1946-53, the needs of the schools were presented to the community in addition to City government. During his term in office, substantial were made in the construction of new facilities, acquisition of instructional equipment and in provisions for better working conditions for staff, accompanied by revisions in salary schedules. Dr. Lemmel died in 1953.
Most Baltimore City public schools were not integrated until after the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court case. But the City's Polytechnic Institute was rare among high schools across the country for two reasons: the advanced college preparatory curriculum it offered and in 1952 it would be forced to offer it to black students. The school's tough ‘A’ course included calculus, analytical chemistry, electricity, mechanics and surveying; subjects not offered at the black schools in the City at that time. Poly was a whites’ only school but supported by both white and black tax dollars. No black schools in the City offered such courses nor did they have the class rooms, labs, libraries or teachers comparable to those at Poly. Due to these conditions, a group of 16 African American students, along with help and support from their parents, the Baltimore Urban League and the NAACP, applied for the engineering “A” course at the Poly. The applications were denied and the students sued. The subsequent trial on the suit began on June 16, 1952. The NAACP’s intentions were to end segregation at the 50-year-old prestigious public high school. In the Poly case, they argued that Poly’s offerings of specialized engineering courses violated the “separate but equal” clause because it was not offered in high schools for black students. To avoid integration, an out-of-court proposal was made to the Baltimore City school board to start an equivalent “A” course at the colored Frederick Douglass high school. The hearing on the "Douglass" plan lasted for hours with Dehuff and others arguing that separate but equal "A" courses would satisfy constitutional requirements and Thurgood Marshall arguing that the plan was a gamble the City should not take. By a vote of 5-3, the board decided that a separate “A” course would not provide the same educational opportunities for African American students and that starting that fall, African American students could attend Poly. Thirteen African American students, Leonard Cephas, Carl Clark, William Clark, Milton Cornish, Clarence Daly, Victor Dates, Alvin Giles, Bucky Hawkins, Linwood Jones, Edward Savage, Everett Sherman, Robert Young, and Silas Young, finally entered the school that fall. They were faced daily with racial epithets, threats of violence and isolation from many of the more than 2,000 students at the school. In 1954, under Superintendent John H. Fisher, and in accordance with the Brown Decision, Baltimore City public schools were among the first public schools below the Mason-Dixon line to desegragate.
In 1960, another law suit was filed against the city school system which also would be nationally historic. Madalyn Murray filed a lawsuit in which she asserted that it was unconstitutional for her son William to be required to participate in Bible readings at Baltimore public schools. In this litigation, she claimed that her son's refusal to partake in the Bible readings, at the Woodbourne Jr. High School (now Chinquapin Middle school), had resulted in violence being directed against him by classmates, and that administrators overlooked it (after his conversion to Christianity, William publicly stated that these were fraudulent assertions). In 1963, this suit (amalgamated with the similar Abington School District v. Schempp) reached the United States Supreme Court, which voted 8-1 in her favor, effectively banning coercive public school prayer and Bible-reading at public schools in Baltimore and the United States.
The BCPSS had become separate from the government in 1997 when partial control was ceded to the state in exchange for increased funding. Now, the mayor and the governor jointly appoint the school board that oversees the system. The school system is currently run by CEO Dr. Andrès Alonso appointed by the school board in the summer of 2007, Dr. Alonzo officially began work on July 1, 2007. Dr. Alonzo comes from the New York City Department of Education, where he served as deputy chancellor to the current chancellor Joel I. Klein.
In late 2003, BCPSS was discovered to be in a severe fiscal crisis, with a deficit estimated to be anywhere from $54-64 million (depending on the reporting source). As a means of reducing the gap, extensive layoffs of teachers and staff took place and new controls were enacted to ensure that spending was more closely monitored. A loan from the city temporarily ended the deficit and BCPSS paid the loan back over a two-year period. Criticism of the system still takes place with regard to the awarding of "emergency" contracts.
BCPSS is often cited as by far the most under-funded school system in the state, currently being 21st in overall spending, after falling from 4th approximately one generation ago. From March 1, 2006 to March 4, 2006, BCPSS students from high schools across Baltimore City held a three-day student strike to oppose an imminent plan to "consolidate" many area high schools into fewer buildings. The school system asserted that these buildings are underutilized. The students and other advocates assert that the reason there extra space exists in these buildings is because class sizes often are about 40 students per class. Martin J. O'Malley, then-mayor of Baltimore, apparently gave an ear to the students' demands in this latest round of strike actions, fearing it could have an impact on his status with the general public in a gubernatorial election year. The end of March 2006 saw a change in the balance of power, with the State of Maryland threatening to take over 11 City schools. It is as yet unknown what effect this change will have in regard to the "facilities management solutions" (school consolidations) plan the BCPSS City School Board has passed.
A recent poll conducted by the Baltimore Sun and Annapolis pollster OpinionWorks July 8-10, 2007 recently revealed Baltimore citizens grim opinion of the system. Asked to grade the Baltimore public schools, 2 percent of respondents gave the system an A; 10 percent gave it a B; 32 percent chose C; 22 percent D; and 20 percent Fail, with 15 percent unsure. If the system were assigned a mean grade-point average based on the poll, it would be a 1.45, the equivalent of about a D-plus".
There are several dozens of public elementary schools, middle schools, and high schools in Baltimore City. The largest school in physical size in Baltimore City is Lake Clifton Eastern High School. The district also holds the third oldest public high school in America, Baltimore City College; and the oldest all-girl public high school, Western High School.