On state school aid, Baltimore still gets the short end

Eugene W. Goll

August 28, 1991|By Eugene W. Goll

IN LIGHT of Baltimore city schools' perpetual money problems, state statistics tell a sad story. In the decade after Baltimore unsuccessfully sued the state for more education aid but was promised great improvement, the city has done proportionately less well than all other districts in Maryland.

Maryland has indeed failed to uphold its end of the bargain. State Education Department tables show that during the decade between 1980-1981 and 1989-1990, city schools received an increase in state aid for operating expenses of 93.6 percent.

In contrast, Calvert County schools had a 10-year increase of 205.9 percent, highest statewide. Aid to Montgomery County, the richest subdivision in Maryland and the district spending most on education, was up 149.6 percent.

Granted, with the most students in Maryland in 1989-1990, the city received the largest dose of state aid -- $263.5 million. (Calvert schools were given $18.3 million.) Figures for all 24 school systems show that a decade ago, state education aid for current operating expenses totaled $776.9 million; by 1989-90, it reached $1.5 billion -- up 129.5 percent.

In 1978, Baltimore, along with Caroline, St. Mary's and Somerset counties, filed the suit known as Somerset vs. Hornbeck (after David L. Hornbeck, then state school superintendent). The case focused on a clause in Maryland's 19th-century, post-Civil War Constitution saying the state must provide a "thorough and efficient" education.

The four districts argued that the only way to insure an adequate education for children in Baltimore and poorer school systems would be to boost state funding. (Among those who testified in the city's behalf was Hornbeck, even though he was named as the defendant in the suit.) A lower court agreed. The Court of Appeals ruled, however, that the state did fulfill its obligation and that any changes to make the aid system more equitable should be ordered by the General Assembly, not the courts. In short, the poor districts had to go on with the fiction that they were offering a "thorough and efficient education" -- no matter that far too many students actually weren't getting one.

It seemed the city had won anyway, especially after the General Assembly set up a study commission headed by Benjamin R. Civiletti, former U.S. attorney general. The study resulted in legislation during the mid-1980s to boost current annual education aid.

William Donald Schaefer, who as mayor approved the city's filing of the suit and the paying of considerable legal fees to pursue it, moved to the Governor's Mansion in 1987. He renamed Civiletti aid APEX (Action Plan for Education Excellence) -- and boosted state assistance through the funding formula, with the poorer systems getting proportionately more aid (though, as it turned out, not nearly enough).

The formula's mix includes a subdivision's wealth: property values and residents' incomes. The number of students in a system is another key factor, and districts that, unlike Baltimore city, are growing rapidly have done very well. Frederick County followed Calvert with the second highest proportionate increase during the 1980s: 198.3 percent.

Both Calvert, in Southern Maryland, and Frederick enjoyed steady enrollment growth during that time, helping lead to the highest increases in aid. On the other hand, Baltimore schools suffered when so many students dropped out or moved out.

At various times Maryland's leaders have tried to correct the formula's deficiencies. For instance, next year Baltimore schools will receive $39.3 million in compensatory education funds, about half the state's total and not part of the basic education formula.

City schools will get an additional $11.4 million in state transportation funding, also separate, compared with the allocation to Prince George's County of $21.3 million. (Many city students must use public transportation -- and pay for it. hTC Students in 23 counties are taken right to the schoolhouse door -- no charge.)

Seventy years ago, Maryland introduced the aid formula based on the concept of equity and increased state assistance. The new formula helped encourage some racially segregated school systems to extend the school year to 180 days for black students as well as whites.

When the formula first came into existence, Baltimore served as the industrial and financial hub of the state. That it has fared so poorly in the ratio of state aid suggests that the time has come to scrap Maryland's aging education funding formula for one more attuned to current needs.

Eugene W. Goll has been following Maryland public education for many years. He writes from Easton.

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