Yet another report on education: Has the time for change really come?

December 02, 1990|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,Kathy Lally covers education for The Sun.

Just a few weeks ago, Gov. William Donald Schaefer had within his grasp a powerful arsenal ready to assail some of the state's most intractable and pervasive of problems -- an education system that failing so badly it is expected to suffocate the economy and a system of taxation that tries to squeeze blood from a turnip.

Thanks to the governor's Sondheim commission, the state's elementary and secondary schools were on the way to making themselves publicly accountable, a necessary condition if they ever hope to get more money from the legislature to make improvements.

Thanks to the governor's Linowes commission, plans were at the ready to take more money from those who could afford it, reducing reliance on the property tax that bleeds poor subdivisions without raising money sufficient for their needs.

Thanks to the state superintendent of schools, who had caught the governor's "do-it-now" fervor after months of being roughed up at Mr. Schaefer's hands, reform had become a hot topic as the state's 24 school systems debated the virtues of a longer school year vs. more computers.

Then came Nov. 6 and an election in which voters said, "No thanks."

Registering deep-running anxiety over taxes and the economy, they threw enough out officeholders to terrify those who had hung on and left Governor Schaefer deeply wounded over a mere 60 percent victory -- he wanted a larger landslide.

The conventional wisdom was that a dramatic change in taxes was unthinkable and that the Linowes recommendations were as good as dead, along with any ideas of greatly increasing state aid to education.

One more element came into play last week. A grass-roots group, the Metropolitan Education Coalition, emerged from three years of steady but largely unsung labor to propose an increase of $628 million in state aid to education. The MEC hammered away at the desperate straits of many Maryland schoolchildren: Impoverished youngsters who need the most help from their schools get the least because they tend to live in poor communities that produce limited amounts from the property taxes that support schools. The quality of educational opportunity in Maryland, the MEC said, depends on where a child happens to live.

The MEC suggested that the state recalculate the formula it uses to distribute money to the 24 local school systems so that tax-poor counties and Baltimore City -- where education problems are the worst and where money spent on schools is the least -- could get more funds. They looked to the Linowes recommendations to finance the new plan.

Amazingly, given recent events, no one laughed.

And suddenly, all the possibilities that had seemed to slip from Governor Schaefer's grasp were in reach once again -- probably not in the next year, but perhaps in the year after that.

Too many people were saying too many of the same things to be ignored.

Walter Sondheim Jr., one of the governor's most trusted advisers and Baltimore's elder statesman, said the MEC report fit nicely with that of his own commission.

"I think this Metropolitan Education Coalition report stands out as a thoughtful thing that concentrates on the output of the schools," Mr. Sondheim said. "The governor and legislature are always asking where any new money would go, what would happen to it. This is all leading in the direction of answering that question."

Robert Y. Dubel, superintendent in Baltimore County, which would not have much to gain by a drastic revision of the state aid formula, saw the beginnings of a powerful trend.

"I don't know of any era when there have been so many relevant reports," Dr. Dubel said. "For the first time, we have a deep and genuine interest in the importance of education. The 1990s will ,, have to be a time of action."

Even Laurence Levitan, a state senator who represents Montgomery County, had gentle words for the MEC proposal. Montgomery County tends to resist redistribution of state aid because politicians there don't want to tell voters they are taking money away from them to give to Baltimore or to a poor county on the Eastern Shore.

Senator Levitan praised the accountability aspect of the MEC plan -- extra funds would be tied to efficient use of them.

"We'd like to see more money put into education if it will do good," he said. "I think it's headed the same way as the Linowes commission. If it's going to achieve results, we'll look at it." But not this year.

"Accountability," repeated Judith Sachwald, the governor's zTC education aide. "The governor has deep appreciation that they looked at accountability. Linking funds to accountability and performance -- those are all the things Joe Shilling [the state superintendent] and the governor have been talking about."

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