Shilling's proposed school reforms snag on local concerns

March 03, 1991|By Gelareh Asayesh

While local officials from all over the state are battling t preserve what they have, state school Superintendent Joseph L. Shilling has been trying to pull off his much-lauded reform package to remake public school education in Maryland.

Not surprisingly, it has come down to a choice between those status quo budgets -- which are about textbooks and teacher salaries and programs -- and Dr. Shilling's plans to hold educators to tough standards, initiate school-by-school improvements and get disadvantaged 4-year-olds into preschool classes.

In a Senate Budget and Taxation Committee hearing room in Annapolis a week ago, the heat was on -- and it was no contest. Dr. Shilling and a handful of supporters, touting the state's "Schools for Success" package, were vastly outnumbered by local superintendents, school board members and education advocates. Even a personal appearance by Gov. William Donald Schaefer could not even up the sides.

Sen. Laurence Levitan, D-Montgomery County, who heads the committee, says the vote will come some time this week but it's a foregoneconclusion.

"The Schools for Success proposal is absolutely dead," he said. "There is overwhelming opposition on it. I've never seen united opposition as I've seen on this particular bill."

That's good news for local school districts, which were outraged the state superintendent's suggestion for funding his reform: tapping into state aid money that localities count on for their regular budgets.

At a time when bleak economic forecasts have forced nearly every school district into severe cutbacks, Dr. Shilling's proposal would divert $19.4 million of an $82.2 million increase in education aid in fiscal 1992 and $50 million the following year. The money is part of a total $878.3 million mandated in fiscal 1992, which begins July 1, under the state's Action Plan for Educational Excellence law, or APEX.

Though localities would regain $9 million of that money, it would be in the form of direct grants to schools. Baltimore, for example, would lose $2.8 million in fiscal 1992 and regain an estimated $750,000. The process sidesteps local superintendents and school boards who generally decide how to spend money in their districts.

This was a calculated move on the part of Dr. Shilling. He believes that targeting money directly to schools, while requiring them to come up with improvement plans and measuring their improvement with tests, is the way to stimulate the kind of local control so avidly advocated in education circles these days.

But it did not sit well with local superintendents, who feel they are better able to judge their district's needs and priorities. And to add insult to injury, APEX was conceived in 1987 as a way to redress funding gaps between education dollars available to poorer areas in comparison to their wealthier counterparts -- a disparity that is as much as $2,000 per pupil per year.

Maryland's poorest districts, which sued in 1983 to force legal redress of that disparity, have been considering renewing their suit if the legislature does not take its own steps. They have been encouraged by successful suits in Kentucky and Texas, as well as by new performance data comparing schools that strengthens their cause. Ironically, that data was generated as the first step of the Shilling reforms.

In their view, touching APEX would be an invitation to do battle.

"If the state backs away further from its commitment to APEX, it's almost inviting advocates of education to take them to court," Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke said Friday. "Many of us have been holding off on any court action, expecting that we could resolve the inequities politically, and the mechanism for that was APEX."

The board of directors of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland voted in November to explore launching a suit that would force greater state funding for poorer districts. However, the group will not decide whether to proceed until the General Assembly session ends in April, said its executive director, Stuart Comstock-Gay.

"If they go ahead and pass some of the proposals that are before them, it certainly changes the status quo," Mr. Comstock-Gay said. The Linowes commission tax reforms, for example, would raise targeted aid for poorer school districts.

While localities press for preservation of education aid -- APEX is a candidate for cuts to help balance the state budget -- Dr. Shilling is struggling to save a nascent reform movement that is in danger of grinding to a halt just when it was supposed to get going.

The state superintendent still hopes to win support from legislators for a scaled-back version of his package. He has spent hours lobbying in Annapolis and says he is finding some support.

But with APEX funding apparently out of reach, Dr. Shilling acknowledges that the program is in "extreme trouble" -- unless the General Assembly decides to enact some kind of money-raising measure.

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