Gov. William Donald Schaefer brought a warning last night to a group of reformers who are seeking to revamp school spending in Maryland.
"Come down on a positive note on what you want done. But don't ask for what can't be done. Don't ask for the impossible," he told a conference of several hundred people from around the state who met all day at Dundalk Community College.
And the impossible, he explained, was any proposal that requires a lot of money.
His remarks came after the participants in the conference had found themselves unable to put together a concrete proposal. The sponsors of the gathering, a group called the Metropolitan Education Coalition, had hoped that the educa
tion officials, politicians, and parent and union representatives who attended would be able to at least draft a rough plan to increase state spending and at the same time to redirect the money so more would flow to the poorer districts.
But they couldn't come to a consensus. Some argued for a complete state takeover of education spending. Others argued for specific "targeted aid" to the poorest districts, in amounts of $100 million or double or triple that.
Without agreement the organizers fell back on general statements at the close of the day: that the state should address the "adequacy of resources," that it should distribute more money to hard-pressed school systems, that there should be vTC accountability for both academic and financial performance, and that there should be "local control and flexibility."
"What is the adequacy of resources?" the governor asked after hearing the statements read out. He pointed out that the state is spending more than $2 billion on primary and secondary schools. "Are we spending it right? Where's the money going?"
He said he is committed to an $84 million increase as called for by the so-called APEX program, which weights aid toward poorer districts. But as to suggestions that the state increase spending by many more millions of dollars, he said, "Maybe it's time to stop talking and come to some conclusions. Do I get it out of Medicare? Do I cut it out of State Police?"
A few minutes later, Mr. Schaefer switched gears. "People all over the state recognize that unless something is done for education all over the state, you'll pay for it in different ways," he said.
He pointed out that this year Maryland is paying $36 million for the medical care of prisoners, and $667 million overall on public safety -- both of which, he suggested, could eventually be reduced if there were better schools.
"I've been to the prisons. I've been to the penitentiaries. I've been to the streets. I've seen the dropouts in my own neighborhood."
The governor's remarks were directed toward what is politically and financially possible. For most of the day, speakers had talked about what they saw as the fundamental problems in the current system of school finance.
The state pays about 40 percent of Maryland's education dollars; the local districts pick up most of the rest. Half of state aid is weighted toward poor districts, but another quarter of state aid -- for teachers' benefits and retirement pay, and for transportation -- is actually weighted toward the wealthier districts.
Rich districts, with fewer problems, spend more than poorer districts, in some cases $2,000 more per student.
William R. Ecker, the Caroline County school superintendent, said a state takeover was the only way to get around that.
"It's just like if one of us had five children, and one of them had greater needs -- let's say he was sick -- you wouldn't say, 'Well, because you have greater needs, we're going to give you less.' But that's what we do with education," he said.
And despite two major programs that have pumped an additional $577 million annually into state education aid, a smaller proportion of Maryland's total budget is spent on schools than in 1984, when the first of those programs was launched, saidHenry Bogdan, Baltimore's state lobbyist.
The share of the state budget devoted to primary and secondary education, he said, has declined over seven years from 32 percent to about 28 percent.
"We're spending 10 percent less of available state revenue on education than we were in 1984, when we all decided we weren't doing enough," he said.
Mr. Bogdan was one of the advocates for targeted aid -- a version of which was vetoed by Governor Schaefer last spring.
"I don't think the state can eat $100 million a year without new tax sources," said Mr. Bogdan. "But you've got to think big because it's not a small problem."
He said it would take $250 million just to raise state education spending back to the 1984 share of the overall state budget.
Tru Ginsburg, president of the Metropolitan Education Coalition, said she expects that the group will be able later this fall to put together a concrete proposal to take to the governor and state legislature.
"We need to turn around and flesh it out," she said.