School grading may revive funding suit

November 20, 1990|By Kathy Lally

The report cards issued yesterday by the State Department of Education contain potentially powerful ammunition that could be used by impoverished school systems to launch a new challenge to the way the state finances education.

"There's absolutely interest in another suit," said William R. Ecker, superintendent of schools in Caroline County, one of the original plaintiffs in the unsuccessful 1983 suit that sought to equalize school spending in the state's 24 subdivisions.

According to sources familiar with an opinion by the Maryland attorney general, the report cards give the poorer systems what they didn't have in the unsuccessful 1983 court case -- evidence that students in the less-wealthy systems perform poorly compared to those in wealthier districts, where more money is available to spend in the schools.

That sort of evidence recently toppled the traditional, property-tax based method of school finance in both Kentucky and Texas, where state courts ordered major increases in education aid.

Maryland's property tax system produces the same sorts of wide disparities in spending and school achievement. Yesterday's report underscored, for example, that Baltimore spends $4,255 per pupil while Howard County spends $5,549. Baltimore failed every category on the report card; Howard students passed seven of eight.

Joseph L. Shilling, the state superintendent of schools, said yesterday that the state school board had asked for the attorney general's opinion to determine its vulnerability against such a suit. Valerie V. Cloutier, the lawyer who was asked to produce the opinion, said it would violate attorney-client privilege to discuss it.

The 1983 suit was filed by Somerset, Caroline and St. Mary's counties and Baltimore City against David W. Hornbeck, then state superintendent of schools. Mr. Hornbeck, ironically, went to work as a consultant to the state of Kentucky and has been one of the chief architects of the school reform there.

Another suit might be brought by different parties this time. The board of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland has authorized its staff to investigate such a suit, Stuart Comstock-Gay, the ACLU director, said yesterday.

No decisions will be made, he said, until there is some sense of whether any of the tax reform recommendations of the Linowes commission make any progress in the next legislative session.

Mr. Ecker said a group called Education Now, representing seven rural school systems, the League of Women Voters, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the ACLU, has already met with lawyers.

"If something doesn't happen this legislative session," he said, "I don't think it will ever happen. I don't want a court case, no one else does either. But if that's what we have to do, that's what we'll do."

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