Vegan chicken and interracial connections

I don’t blog about food much, but I had a dining experience last night that was unusual enough to mention. The evening began in frustration and ended in an unexpectedly pleasant way. It was a cross-cultural connection of the type that I find all too rare in Baltimore.

First, the frustrating part. My wife had had a long day at work: a drive to D.C. and back, followed by hours of phone meetings. It seemed like dinner out would be appreciated. I checked on our available Groupons (de rigueur in our thrift-conscious household), found a place we both liked — and discovered it was closed on Tuesdays. Strike one. Not to worry, a LivingSocial popped up just in time, for a newish restaurant we were interested in checking out. I bought it before realizing that it wouldn’t be valid until the next day. Strike two.

Feeling unlucky, my wife sifted through other Groupon possibilities and found one for something called 2110 Bistro, a place we’d never heard of over in the Charles North neighborhood, not far from us. A quick scan of the menu indicated a quirky variety: crab cakes, “mojo” sandwiches, a number of vegan options. We are mostly vegetarian, and my daughter is a vegan — we decided to check it out and to bring the kids with us.

When we got to 2110 Bistro, our hearts sank a little bit. The front of the building was poorly lighted; it would have been easy to miss, even with the sign on the door that read, somewhat pleadingly, “We’re open.” Stepping inside, we found the place nearly empty. It was small, with a curtain separating the dining room and kitchen. The walls were dark, the lighting neither brightly cheery nor dimly romantic. The decor looked a bit like a collision between a junior high cafeteria and a small-town Southern juke joint.

But we were greeted warmly at the door and seated in rickety chairs, where we soon ordered and then waited for about half an hour for our food to arrive, wondering what we were in for.

Turned out, it was worth the wait. The crab cakes were good and served with zesty sautéed spinach. The vegan ginger curry chicken didn’t taste exactly like chicken but was delicious nonetheless. The veggie burger, fries and mozzarella sticks were all respectable.

The longer I sat there, the more I liked the place. There was funky art on the wall by an artist transplanted from Russia to Baltimore. One side of the narrow, rectangular room featured long benches with soft cushions. It had an inviting, cozy feel.

But maybe the nicest part of the meal was talking afterward with the owners, brothers named Ray and Jay. Jay did most of the cooking, while Ray served our food and chatted with us about the restaurant, which the brothers opened eight months ago. They live in Edmondson Village and used to have another restaurant, closer to home, but keeping both places going proved too much, so now they just have Bistro 2110.

OK, so the “Bistro” part may be an exaggeration. But these guys are trying hard. Their vegetarian soul food concept is distinctive and tasty. They have live music and spoken word poetry events from time to time. They are doing something good and important.

Ray and Jay are black, as is most of the neighborhood, as were the few other people who drifted in and out during the hour we spent at 2110 Bistro. We are white. And this did not seem to matter to anyone. I promised Ray I’d be back and would tell my friends about his place. Jay said nice things about my kids as we headed out the door. I wish a few more people had come in for dinner during the time we had spent there. I know the odds of new businesses surviving, and I want Ray and Jay’s place to make it.

We took a chance on 2110 Bistro, and it paid off. It resulted not just in a good meal but in a friendly encounter with people who were different from us in a number of ways — folks we would have been unlikely to meet otherwise. Experiences like this, I feel, are sadly infrequent in Baltimore, where black and white, and rich and poor, continue to move in very different worlds.

It embarrasses me that, although I live in a city that is 65 percent African-American, I know few black people personally. Many of the kinds of things I like to do seem to be torn from the pages of “Stuff White People Like”: a Hopkins Symphony Orchestra concert; a sock monkey workshop at the American Visionary Arts Museum. These things are often cheap or free, so cost is not the issue. It’s something much deeper, a brew of historical and cultural factors that can be maddeningly difficult to penetrate.

I don’t have the answers to any of this, but one thing I can say for sure is that if more families like mine spent more time in places like Ray and Jay’s, Baltimore would be a better place. I’ll be stopping in there again — maybe to sample Jay’s vegan beef and broccoli, maybe for a late-night poetry slam. I hope you will too.

Private schools, public harm

Does private education play a positive role in society? Would things be better without it? Is it immoral to send your kids to private school?

These questions have gotten a lot of attention lately, especially after this provocative article appeared in Slate last summer. That piece was more of a bomb-throwing manifesto than an invitation to serious  consideration of a critical issue (an interpretation supported by the headline, “If you send your kid to private school, you are a bad person”). It was followed by a number of less incendiary but equally thought-provoking articles, like this and this.

I know something about private schools. I attended one through eighth grade. My wife taught at private schools in Louisiana and California for 12 years. My father was a proud graduate of the Riverdale School for Boys. My best friend has taught in private schools his entire adult life. On the other hand, I attended public high school, my wife only attended public schools, my mother spent her career in public education, and — as regular readers of this blog know — my three children are products of public schools in Los Angeles and Baltimore.

So I come to the public versus private school debate as someone quite familiar with both sides. Few will be surprised that I land firmly on the public school side. After all, part of the point of this blog is to promote civic institutions that Baltimore depends on to thrive and grow, and the public school system is the most important institution of all. But my thinking has evolved somewhat over the years.

Once upon a time, I thought that overall, it was probably a good thing that parochial and independent schools existed. After all, choices and options are good things in most areas of life (health care, arts and culture, etc.), so why not education? My personal preference was for the public schools, but if someone else wanted a Catholic education or a funky Waldorf experience for their kids, who was I to say boo?

Well, sorry, but I’m gonna say boo. No, I’m not as extreme as Allison Benedikt, author of the above-referenced Slate diatribe. I do not think that parents who send their kids to private school are bad people. However, I have come to believe that the schools themselves are bad, and we would all be better off without them — including the people who send their kids to those schools. 

Private schools are a classic case of what my sociologist wife calls the “smart for one, dumb for all” phenomenon. That is, it may seem smart for an individual well-off person to send her child to a private school where he can get more individual attention and enjoy better resources than he would in the challenged public school down the road. But in the end, society as a whole suffers from that decision, thus making it “dumb for all.” Why? Because although that child apparently benefits personally, he then has to live in a society that is made worse because the millions of individual choices people like his parents have made mean the public schools (where the vast majority will continue to be educated) are all but abandoned by the wealthy and upper middle class.

Actually, I would argue that the situation is even worse — that it is closer to being “dumb for one, dumb for all,” because the individual benefits to the private school student are vastly exaggerated and may, in fact, be nonexistent. My kids, for example — and those of many of my friends — have all received stellar educations in the Baltimore City Public Schools, while at the same time receiving the very real benefits of immersion in a multiracial, multiethnic, socioeconomically diverse environment.

Of course, I don’t expect everyone to share my opinion that we would all be better off without private schools. Some people will make different choices, and that’s OK with me — as long as those choices are informed. Get all the information on local public and private schools. Carefully consider your values. Study the costs, meaning all the costs, including what your children miss out on when they go to school surrounded almost entirely by white, upper-middle-class kids. Look at the outcomes: Which colleges are the top students in the local public and private high schools getting into? (For instance, here you can compare 2013 acceptances for the private Park School, whose upper school charges $26,390 tuition, and the public Baltimore City College High School.)

If you carefully examine the alternatives, gather the information, and still decide in favor of a private education for your child, then I cannot really argue with your choice, even if I think that choice is causing long-term damage to society. But I have no tolerance for those who dismiss the option of public education out of hand — whether because their parents went to private school, or because “everyone knows” the city school system is no good and can’t be used, or simply … because. As my teenage daughter might say: That’s just wrong.

Doing great things in Greater Homewood

I recently joined the board of the Greater Homewood Community Corporation. It’s one of those Baltimore organizations that you’ve probably heard of but aren’t exactly sure what they do. That was me for a long time — even though they operate in the part of Baltimore where I live, and even though I’ve long been on friendly terms with the group’s executive director. I knew they sponsored a softball tournament in the spring a few years ago, which I enjoyed participating in. I was aware, vaguely, that they had something to do with community development, schools and literacy.

Since leaving my job and setting my life on a different course a few months ago, I’ve taken a keener interest in what’s going on in Baltimore — specifically, changes that are making it a better place to live — and particularly in my part of the city. A lot of people and a lot of groups are working for positive social change in North-Central Baltimore, but GHCC is clearly the leader of the pack. This was made clear to me on two recent occasions: the group’s annual awards event Tuesday night, and during a recent drive around the area served by GHCC (which extends all the way from the Jones Falls to The Alameda and from the city/county line all the way down to Mount Royal Avenue).

My tour guide on the drive was the indefatigable Karen Stokes — nonprofit executive director, high school PTSA leader, theater booster and water ballet performer (really). She led us through a remarkable litany of community improvements projects in which GHCC has been involved: tree plantings along York Road; helping Habitat for Humanity build homes in Mid-Govans; reopening the formerly shuttered Barclay Recreation Center; rehabbing vacant homes and training block captains in Harwood. They enroll dozens of residents in job-training programs and teach hundreds to read annually. Last year, GHCC was an important voice in Annapolis for passage of the $1.2 billion funding plan to build and renovate dozens or city schools.

They are not a traditional community development corporation. A lot of what they do is collaborative and cooperative: offering technical support to smaller nonprofit organizations, partnering with community groups like York Road Partnership, Central Baltimore Partnership and dozens of others on local projects; leveraging support from government agencies, foundations and anchor institutions like local universities. As a result, despite its surprisingly wide range of activities and although it has been around more than four decades, GHCC often flies below the radar. 

On Tuesday, I got to meet a lot of the people who are doing this inspiring work — folks like GHCC volunteer of the year Amanda Ruthven, a young woman who moved to Harwood after leaving the Navy and decided to improve her neighborhood one day by helping to plant trees. Three years later, she is treasurer of the Harwood Community Association, a member of Barclay Elementary/Middle School’s Family Council, and the founder of a community garden. When she comes home from work in the evening, neighborhood kids greet her with cries of “What are we going to plant today, Miss Amanda?”

What are we going to plant today and tomorrow, Baltimore? Amanda Ruthven’s level of commitment and energy are unusual, to be sure, but it is not necessary for all of us to do as much as she does. If everyone who was able just did something small — mentoring a teen, getting involved in a literacy class, or, yes, planting a tree — this city could be transformed. 

So go ahead and get involved! I’m biased toward GHCC, of course, but there’s an almost endless list of nonprofits, schools, libraries, hospitals and arts institutions all over this city that and hungry for what the caring and talented people of Baltimore have to offer. There is almost certainly one you can walk or bike to from your home.

Remember, nobody ever, with their last breath, said, “I sure regret the time I spent helping to clean up that school or teaching that guy to read.”

Building Baltimore’s education future, from the ground up

A few days ago, I spent a gorgeous autumn Saturday sitting inside a bunch of lecture halls listening to people talk about public school design — for almost six hours — so that you didn’t have to. You’re welcome.

I was hardly the only one. A couple hundred people attended the “21st-Century Buildings Design Expo” at Morgan State University in Northeast Baltimore. They included politicians, educators, business leaders, activists, architects, students and parents. A wide variety of ages, races and walks of life were represented.

What did this diverse group have in common? All of them believe that Baltimore can have a world-class public school system — that we are, despite the conventional wisdom, well on the way to achieving it — and that one way to reach that goal is to create beautiful school buildings that will become cathedrals of education and anchors of their neighborhoods.

Yes, we really can do this. We can do it because Baltimore has great ideas and motivated people, and will soon have an infusion of $1.2 billion to transform dozens of decrepit schools, building about 15 new ones from scratch and thoroughly renovating many more.

There are models for this kind of work from many other communities, some of which I learned about at a workshop I attended titled “Building Schools and Neighborhoods.” Bobbi Hill of Concordia, a planning and architecture firm in New Orleans — another city close to my heart with a lot of experience transforming schools and neighborhoods — gave some great examples of schools that are helping to turn things around in their communities. The Met School in a troubled part of Providence, R.I. consists of four small schools, a health clinic, a concert space, a fitness center, a park and other public-access features, all within a two-block area. An amazing 86 percent of its students graduate from high school, and almost all of them apply to college. “And the basketball nets on the court are intact,” Hill noted — a small but telling indication of neighborhood health. She described similar school/community success stories in Emeryville, Calif., and Houston.

While I was learning about the symbiotic relationship between schools and communities, and later on hearing from Baltimore students about how they had turned their campuses into “green schools” (see this video I took of the awesome kids at Baltimore Montessori Public Charter School), others were delving into topics such as “Teaching and Learning in 21st Century Buildings,” “10 Steps to Healthy and High Performing Schools,” and “Technology that Supports High Expectations for Students With Disabilities.”

Yeah, I know. There’s something a little odd about sitting inside on perhaps the nicest day of the year to discuss the pros and cons of nontoxic cleaning products, how to design a school cafeteria, or what, exactly, constitutes a “healthy neighborhood.” But this stuff is important. The level of energy and enthusiasm of the people in those rooms was amazing. I wish everyone who reflexively puts down Batimore’s schools or cynically dismisses the notion that there could be progress here might have been able to see it.

Sure, the conference was about the architecture of schools — but it was really about something bigger than that. As Bobbi Macdonald, a city schools parent and executive director of the City Neighbors Foundation, told us during the opening session: “We’re here to build families and communities … We are here to transform Baltimore.”

Race and reporting

Is the Baltimore Sun racist in the way it covers crime news? Is a Baltimore Sun crime reporter racist because of the way he does his job? And what do we mean by the word “racist” anyway?

Provocative questions, and I’m not sure I can answer all of them with confidence. Thanks to a recent disturbing incident in the local media world, though, I feel compelled to try.

The incident in question was a back-and-forth this month between Baltimore Sun crime reporter Justin Fenton and local activist Adam Jackson, one of the founders of a local black self-empowerment group called Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle. In a back-and-forth on Twitter recounted here on storify.com, Jackson grows increasingly strident in his objections to what he sees as the Sun’s failure to report adequately on a community meeting in which black leaders discussed how to reduce violence in the community. (Fenton attended the meeting but didn’t have time to write a story for the next day’s paper, so he tweeted about it instead.) In the end, Jackson denounced both the Sun and Fenton: “I feel pretty confident in saying that @justin_fenton, like other @baltimoresun reporters like him are closeted white racists.”

Fenton (an acquaintance and former colleague of mine) is a smart, extremely dedicated reporter who does not need me to defend him, but for what it’s worth, based on what I know of him personally, the charge of racism is an outrageous lie. It is not really worth dignifying with a response. Whether the Baltimore Sun is, as Jackson claims, “a racist publication,” is a more interesting question. I would argue the answer is no — but at bottom, it depends on what your definition of “racist” is.

The most widely understood meaning of racism, of course, is the intentional infliction of harm against people — usually black people — based on their race, ethnicity, etc. In my opinion, only someone who was deeply paranoid could imagine that those who edit and report for The Sun perform their jobs in a spirit of ill will toward black people and a desire to do them harm. Jackson seems to have a different definition in mind. He writes, “The media in this city has done a very good job of highlighting the recent rash of violence in this city over the summer. … What they have NOT done a good job of is covering the Black leaders and ordinary Black citizens working together on the issue to SOLVE it.”

He may be on to something. There have been few reports in The Sun or any mainstream media outlet about community efforts to reduce crime in Baltimore. However, it’s also true that the community response to crime has often been disorganized and anemic.

The Sun does not have many black writers or editors — certainly fewer now than when I started working there in 2004, before multiple waves of layoffs and buyouts. I don’t know how hard the paper is trying to recruit blacks to the newsroom. Doing such a thing is surely easier said than done. But I feel that this should be among the paper’s very highest priorities.

Of course, Jackson’s complaint goes beyond the number of blacks working in the newsroom. His core objection is to the way the news is covered. I am white and so can’t speak personally to how The Sun is perceived in the black community, but friends who are black tell me that many black Baltimoreans view the paper with suspicion or hostility. At least part of the reason is a perception that the paper emphasizes crime and other bad news rather than positive developments in the black community — and that the loss of black lives is trivialized, while the killing of a white person receives massive coverage.

For example, a typical Baltimore murder — black perpetrator, black victim, drug and/or gang related — normally rates a short article on an inside page; if little information is available, the coverage might be no more than what journalists call a “brief.” (This example from a few days ago is typical.) On the other hand, when a middle-class white resident is killed, there tends to be heavy coverage with a front-page story, photos, sidebar articles, and sometimes opinion pieces. (A case in point from recent history was the death in Charles Village of Johns Hopkins researcher Stephen Pitcairn.)

This reality can create the impression that the paper values white lives over black lives, but the situation is much more nuanced. In most cases, overworked reporters and editors are doing the best they can with limited information. If each “typical” Baltimore homicide was played up with a big headline on the front page, some of the same people now complaining about the trivializing of murder would no doubt be accusing the Sun of sensationalism and playing up bad news about black people. Meanwhile, the major attention given to a crime like the Pitcairn murder probably had less to do with Pitcairn’s race than the many other factors that made his case unusual: that he was a successful, middle-class, had no criminal ties, and was stabbed to death in a comparatively “safe” neighborhood. In other words, if Pitcairn had been black, his killing would still have received intense coverage — as is the case with other atypical crimes that shock the conscience, such as the shooting of Monae Turnage, a 13-year-old black girl, by a young friend of hers.

Of course, one might argue that any murder on the streets of Baltimore should shock the conscience. This may be the essence of the Adam Jackson argument: that the media should cover the news in a way that delves deeply into the reasons why crime ravages many poor, black neighborhoods in Baltimore and ought to go into great depth about what people who live there are doing in response. He is essentially asking for the Sun to step out of its traditional role of objective reporting and engage in advocacy journalism. There are all kinds of reasons why that won’t happen, but it does raise important and interesting questions about the role of media. These are conversations that absolutely should be happening in Baltimore (and elsewhere), but Jackson has chosen to shut down even the possibility of such a conversation by blithely labeling well-intentioned people with whom he disagrees as “racist.” It’s a damn shame.

Baltimore schools’ great leap forward

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A new elementary-middle school is under construction in Baltimore’s Waverly neighborhood.

This week, I went for a ride around north and central Baltimore with a group that included the pastor and associate pastor of a local church. One of the things we observed was all the activity at so many Baltimore City public schools: the new Waverly Elementary-Middle school currently under construction; the rejuvenated rec center at Barclay Elementary-Middle School; the exciting new Baltimore Design School in Greenmount West.

When these church leaders moved to town recently, they were told by their parishioners — a Baltimore City congregation that draws from both the city and the Baltimore County — that the city school system was a lost cause. They shouldn’t even bother looking. Just send your kids to school in the county.

We had a similar experience when we were moving to town nine years ago. The real estate agent kept showing my wife places in the suburbs. We had kids, so he figured that must be what we wanted. What parents would choose to send their kids to school in the city? You know, with those people … ?

It’s a sadly commonplace attitude in and around Baltimore. In my last post I took a swipe at the Baltimore City Paper for its intellectually lazy attack on the school system in its recent Best of Baltimore issue, in which it called the schools the “Best Reason to Leave Baltimore.” To recap, City Paper noted that “CEO Dr. Andres Alonso was talking a big game about insisting on excellence in city schools, giving parents more choices, shutting down the failures, and giving educators with great ideas the chance to run with them. People who hadn’t considered staying in the city with the little people were sorta thinking about it. But now, Alonso’s gone, and North Avenue finds itself tangled in its familiar web of far-fetched plans (Transform Baltimore), petty disputes (Tisha Edwards versus detractors), and general mismanagement.”

Andres Alonso was, by most accounts, brash, arrogant, strong-willed and egotistical. This led him into trouble on a few occasions; for example, he seemed surprised at the outrage over revelations that his personal driver earned $78,000 in overtime one year. But his cockiness also worked to his benefit and the city’s. He was the right man at the right time to shake up the BCPS and put it on the path to reform. He did more than “talking a big game” about closing failing schools and empowering parents and principals. When he resigned at the end of the 2012-13 school year, he left a system with fewer hopeless schools and more thriving ones, including charter schools and magnets; he orchestrated a pay-for-performance teachers contract that is a national model; he oversaw drastically higher graduation rates and lower suspension rates; he settled a federal lawsuit over special education and implemented a highly praised “One year plus” program for special ed; and test scores rose steadily for the first several years of his tenure.

He wasn’t perfect. The early test score improvement stalled out, and he got involved in some minor but avoidable financial and personnel scandals, none of them earth-shattering or career-ending (they included a relatively minor cheating episode and revelations of financial mismanagement by some school officials). His six-year tenure was long for a big-city superintendent, and I would challenge anyone to name a large, urban school system than has seen more impressive gains than Baltimore during that time. It’s little wonder that Alonso commands wide respect in education circles and is said to be presumptive mayor Bill de Blasio’s top choice to lead the New York City school system.

Oh, and that snide reference to Transform Baltimore as a “far-fetched plan”? Actually, it’s a well-thought-out, ambitious, game-changing program to leverage city and state funds into a major borrowing program that will pump $1 billion in state and local money into school construction and renovation in Baltimore over 10 years. Although this is only half or less of what advocates say is needed to bring Baltimore’s educational infrastructure up to snuff, it is enough to make a huge difference: instead of the current piecemeal process of fixing up a few buildings a year, dozens of beautiful new or thoroughly renovated buildings will rise in neighborhoods throughout the city. This plan is not dreamy or “far-fetched.” The state legislature approved the program, and the city raised its beverage tax and set aside some of its anticipated casino gambling funds to make it happen.

City schools a lost cause? My kids would be surprised to hear that. All three of them have attended city public schools. My daughter is a freshman at an excellent liberal arts college, which gave her a nice scholarship. My older son, a junior, is taking a rigorous academic program including honors physics and A.P. English while also receiving professional-caliber training in the arts of stage design and production. My younger son, a freshman, attends one of the most prestigious high schools in the country (also the third-oldest), which offers the world-renowned International Baccalaureate program. As an added bonus, all of them have had the tremendous advantages that come from learning and interacting with people whose backgrounds are very different from their own — racially, culturally and socioeconomically.

I’m not saying these things to brag but merely to point out that a great education is available in the Baltimore City Public School system RIGHT NOW — if you want it. City schools took a great leap forward under Andres Alonso, and they are preparing for another one with Transform Baltimore.

Those who refuse to acknowledge this progress and relentlessly heap scorn on Baltimore’s schools are suffering from either bad information or bad intentions — or both.

Hating Baltimore’s schools: Best reason to knock City Paper

Despite the headline on this post, I love the Baltimore City Paper. It is an essential part of the city’s journalistic landscape. At its best, it follows in the tradition of great alternative weeklies like the Village Voice — uncovering municipal corruption, promoting under-appreciated aspects of the city’s cultural life, and doing it with an edginess and attitude that would usually be inappropriate in a mainstream publication like the Baltimore Sun. The City Paper is perhaps more vital than ever since the demise of Urbanite, which had a somewhat similar agenda but a sleeker look and more sophisticated, less-snarky approach.

One of City Paper’s most anticipated features is its annual Best of Baltimore report. Highly subjective, wide-ranging and often irreverent, Best of Baltimore is a highly sought-after title in restaurants, clubs, bike shops, hair salons, movie theaters and the like around the metro area.

It is precisely because City Paper generally has something interesting and useful to say, that I was taken aback to read this when Best of Baltimore 2013 came out a few weeks ago: “Best Reason to Leave Baltimore: the schools.” The entry was fairly short, so I’ll reproduce it in full here: “OK, so this Reason to Leave Baltimore has been a primary reason to leave Baltimore for a couple decades and, in that time, thousands of people who loved Baltimore City have, in fact, left it for the leafy, miserable expanse of The Counties at the first sign of small people living in their house. But for a few years there, city schools CEO Dr. Andres Alonso was talking a big game about insisting on excellence in city schools, giving parents more choices, shutting down the failures, and giving educators with great ideas the chance to run with them. People who hadn’t considered staying in the city with the little people were sorta thinking about it. But now, Alonso’s gone, and North Avenue finds itself tangled in its familiar web of far-fetched plans (Transform Baltimore), petty disputes (Tisha Edwards versus detractors), and general mismanagement.”

This short paragraph packs in so much that is distorted, cliched and simply wrong-headed that it’s hard to know where to start. Actually, it isn’t hard at all, so I’ll begin at the beginning: Why even publish a “Best Reason to Leave Baltimore”? Given the city’s monumental challenges and the heroic efforts of so many who are overcoming great odds to push the city forward in countless ways every day, does Baltimore really need another gratuitous kick in the ribs?

What annoys me most about this little screed is not its inaccuracies, although those are annoying enough (I will deal with them in detail in a follow-up post) —  it’s the same thing that gets me riled up almost anytime the Baltimore City Public Schools are dismissed in such an offhand way. Frankly, such critiques are thoroughly boring. They betray a profound lack of creativity or thoughtfulness. There is nothing easier or more trite than to take a swipe at a major metropolitan inner-city school system which, like virtually all such school systems, must overcome extraordinary barriers to success. In Baltimore, the vast majority of public school students are black, and most are poor. Many, if not most, come from households that are chaotic and neighborhoods that are not safe after dark. The schools have suffered from middle-class disinvestment and abandonment for decades. Yet, despite all that and more, in recent years they have begun to undergo a renaissance that may just be unprecedented among big-city public school systems in the U.S.

In the face of so much cynicism and hostility, there’s a good news story here that needs to be told, and I will be telling part of it in future posts — so watch this space!

Rain tax rant, part two

In my last post, I described my encounter with Dan the plumber, who challenged my support of the so-called “rain tax” that property owners in Maryland’s most populous counties and Baltimore City have to pay. I realized my argument would have been much stronger if I could have pointed to even a single concrete example of what the Watershed Protection and Restoration Program actually pays for.

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Blue crabs — photo courtesy of arthropoda.wordpress.com

That’s the big problem with taxes, isn’t it? There’s rarely a direct, discernible connection between all those bucks we funnel into local, state and federal and governments every year and the benefits we receive in return. The blue crabs returning to the Chesapeake Bay thanks to millions of dollars of pollution-prevention efforts don’t come with little tags reading “Your tax dollars at work.” Even fees (and technically the rain tax is a fee, not a tax) often have this problem, although they are linked directly to a specific and presumably obvious benefit.

In the case of the Watershed Protection and Restoration Program, it’s not as easy as it should be to find out what the program does and where the money is going. A fact sheet on the Maryland Department of the Environment’s website, presumably intended to explain the program to ordinary residents in straightforward language, says this:

“The Watershed Protection and Restoration Program (HB987) was signed into law in April 2012. The program establishes a system of stormwater remediation fees and a local watershed protection and restoration fund (WPRF) that must be implemented by counties and municipalities that are subject to a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) Phase I Municipal Separate Storm Sewer System (MS4) permit in Maryland. ”

If you fell asleep about halfway through the second sentence of that paragraph, I wouldn’t blame you. A “National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) Phase I Municipal Separate Storm Sewer System (MS4) permit”? Really? This is the language in which government bureaucrats talk to each other. It does nothing to persuade the Dan the plumbers of the world of the benefits of this program. In fact, it doesn’t even try.

The next part of the fact sheet, titled “What does the WPRF pay for,” seems more promising at first. Here’s what it says:

“The WPRF pays for stormwater management, and stream and wetland restoration projects to improve water quality and reduce phosphorus and nitrogen levels entering Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. The WPRF may be used for public education and outreach relating to stormwater management, and stream and wetland restoration. The WPRF may be used to pay for the operation and maintenance of existing stormwater management programs and facilities, and for local stormwater management planning activities. The WPRF provides funding for local stormwater management planning, including:  Mapping and assessment of impervious surfaces; Monitoring, inspection, and enforcement activities to carry out the program; and Reviewing stormwater management plans and permit applications for new development provided that any existing charges or fees collected are deposited into the fund.”

That’s better — but still leaves much to be desired. “Stormwater management and stream and wetland restoration projects” sound great, but I won’t win any arguments with Dan the plumber on the grounds that some generic “wetland restoration projects” will be funded and that the money coming out of his pocket “may” go toward “operation and maintenance of existing storm water management programs and facilities.” He’s going to want to know: Which facilities in particular? Where are they? What specific wetlands will be restored? Where are they? Can he get there in an hour’s drive from Baltimore? Can he go fishing there?

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David Craig, GOP candidate for governor and “rain tax” opponent

The lack of specifics about the program is also fueling high-profile opponents, such as Harford County Executive David Craig, a Republican candidate for governor of Maryland, who wrote an op-ed in the Baltimore Sun last month reflecting those concerns.

Fortunately, there are organizations out there that do a better job than the state of Maryland at explaining what’s happening to the Chesapeake Bay and why controlling storm water runoff is important. The best of and most-established of these is the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, which excels at presenting the issue using language and graphics that are clear and to the point. The CBF’s explanation of the storm water pollution problem is the simplest and best I’ve read on the issue. My old friends at the Editorial Board of the Sun have done a pretty good job explaining it, too.

But until we do better at providing the kind of information that Dan the plumber (and David the candidate) are asking for — specifics about which projects are going to get funded, where they are, how much they will cost and how, exactly, we will benefit — skeptics will continue to have the upper hand in these arguments. And the Chesapeake Bay will lose.

Rain tax rant, part one

Dan the plumber has a point.

I called Dan the other day to fix the toilet on the first floor. He was quick, efficient, friendly. Didn’t even charge me for the part he replaced — just his labor cost. We exchanged pleasantries, and then, turning to go, he asked me: “So, what do you think of the rain tax”?

I don’t particularly seek out political arguments, but I don’t shy away from them either. So I told him that I thought that what opponents call Maryland’s “rain tax” — technically, the Watershed Protection and Restoration Fund fee — is probably a good idea. It’s purpose is to clean up the Chesapeake Bay, surely a worthy goal. It makes a kind of sense that homeowners and business owners should contribute toward cleaning up the bay, since runoff from our property contributes to bay pollution.

chesapeakebay

Satellite image of the Chesapeake Bay. Everyone wants the bay to be cleaner, but there’s no consensus about paying for it.

Dan wasn’t persuaded. He’s a fisherman who wants a cleaner bay, but he doesn’t trust government to get the job done. “They’ve been working on it for years, and it hasn’t gotten better,” he said. I argued, somewhat lamely, that the Chesapeake’s water quality has gotten better — at least a little bit. But I realized that I couldn’t prove this, not off the top of my head. Nor could I explain what, exactly, the “rain tax” would pay for, even though I’m a news junkie who reads several newspapers a day and listens to NPR religiously. I consider myself well-informed on local issues. I was on the Baltimore Sun’s editorial board, for Pete’s sake! Why wasn’t I able to be more articulate on this issue?

Dan and I shook hands and agreed to disagree about the rain tax — not to mention climate change and Obamacare.

As I thought about it, I realized that my interaction with Dan reflected a problem I have with the state of national politics. Frankly, we liberals often do a lousy job explaining ourselves. How could we, for example, have lost the public argument over the Affordable Care Act? Is it really that hard to make the case that it’s a good thing to bring health coverage to millions of uninsured people — and that it’s only fair for everyone to have to buy insurance in order to make the system work?

Most liberals I know vent their frustration at conservatives, but what good does that really do? What if a fraction of that energy went into examining the problems with the progressive message? What we should be asking ourselves is: If our arguments are better than theirs, why aren’t we winning?

Up next: What I wish I’d told Dan the plumber

Furlough foolishness

This post isn’t exactly about Baltimore — except that it is, because lots of people in and near Baltimore work for the federal government. One of them happens to be my wife. She has not been furloughed; however, many of the people she works with in her office — including her immediate boss and a colleague with whom she works closely on a major project — have indeed been sent home. So, she has to go to work each day and in fact has more to do than usual, to take up her absent colleague’s slack. But although she has more work to do, there are important things that she can’t do, because the people who need to be there to sign off on those things … aren’t there. They’ve been furloughed.

This might be an apt time to mention that my wife is a researcher for a government agency that was created by the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. That’s right — the dreaded Obamacare. It turns out that Obamacare is a “permanent appropriation” like Medicare and Medicaid; it does not rely on passage of the  so-called Continuing Resolution that is needed to keep most government functions up and running for a few more weeks. In fact, as you are probably aware, the full roll-out of Obamacare launched on Oct. 1, the same day the government shutdown. The biggest problem with the launch so far? So many millions people want the program that they caused the system to crash by all trying to access it at the same time. In other words, as Paul Krugman noted in his column this week, the biggest “problem” with Obamacare is almost entirely a good “problem” and one that will certainly be resolved in the days and weeks to come (people have until March 2014 to complete their enrollment).

The irony is exquisite. Tea Party Republicans in the House have shut down the government, costing the economy hundreds of millions of dollars a day and hurting millions of people in the process, like a friend of mine, a government contractor who is losing $3,500 a week in revenue and will soon have to take out a new loan to keep her business afloat is the shutdown continues. (Then there are those who are being hurt in a very literal sense, such as the children with cancer who won’t get access to crucial clinical trials at the National Institutes of Health).

The Affordable Care Act, it is important to remember, was based on Republican ideas developed at the conservative Heritage Foundation back in the 1990s, as an alternative to a single-payer, government-run health program. Yet today’s Republicans hate the ACA so much that they’d rather see most of the government shut down than approve funding for it. And so the government is shut down … and yet Obamacare marches on!

By the way, if the Republicans did manage somehow to eventually defund Obamacare, closing down the agency my wife works for and sending her home for good, here’s how the country would benefit: She would no longer get to do her primary work helping find ways to prevent preterm births among women on Medicaid. Preterm births typically land infants in the neo-natal intensive care unit, at a cost of tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars, and often cause long-term health deficits costing hundreds of thousands of dollars more over a child’s lifetime. We can’t have any of that, now can we? Much better for her to stay at home and knit.