Sue 'Em!

TIM BAKER

May 11, 1992|By TIM BAKER

It's time for Baltimore to go back to court. In 1983, it lost alaw suit challenging the substantial inequalities which then existed in per-pupil public-school expenditures between Maryland's rich and poor subdivisions.

Since then, the educational funding disparities in this state have grown worse. Just look at the numbers.

A child in the city school system receives an education that costs $4,947 per pupil per year (based on the 1990-1991 figures, the latest available). Statewide, the average cost is $5,815 -- $868 more. In Baltimore County, it's $6,220 -- $1,273 more. In Montgomery County, the state's richest subdivision, it is $7,591 -- $2,644 more.

These per-pupil figures make more sense when you consider their cumulative impact on classes and schools.

* A class of 30 students in Baltimore County has $38,190 more per year to spend than one in the city. A class in Montgomery County has $79,320 more.

* A high school with 1,500 students in Baltimore County has $1.9 million more to spend every year than one in the city. A high school in Montgomery County has $3.9 million more.

* From 9th through 12th grade, a Baltimore County student attends a high school which receives a total of $7.6 million more than one in the city. In Montgomery County the difference adds up to $15.8 million over the four years of high school.

* From kindergarten through 12th grade, a Baltimore County student attends an elementary, middle, and high school which together receive $15.2 million more than the three schools attended by a city student. A Montgomery County student's three schools receive $31.7 million more.

You don't have to be a foaming-at-the-mouth liberal to realize what a difference that kind of money makes. It will recruit better teachers and also buy a lot more tutors, library books, computers, equipment and supplies.

Baltimore city schools have to get along without them. They have about half as many guidance counselors, librarians, physical education instructors, art and music teachers per student as schools in the suburban counties.

They have the lowest teacher salaries in the region and the most difficulty attracting high-quality applicants. They spend $3 per student on library books while Baltimore County spends $7 and Montgomery $26. An average city school has 15 computers. In Baltimore County it has 22. In Montgomery, the average school has 44 computers.

Of course, people rightly criticize the city's bloated school administration. But it only costs $193 per student -- $12 less than Baltimore County's, $131 less than Montgomery County's, and 15 percent less than the statewide average. Even if the city fired every bureaucrat on North Avenue, its per-pupil instructional funding would still rank 22nd in the state. Right now, it's 24th. Dead last.

With substantially less money, the city school system is required to educate the students who need the most help. It handles half the state's disadvantaged children. Over 60 percent of them grow up in poverty. Special education programs chew up 23 percent of the city school budget, almost twice the state average.

The city's students are 81 percent African-American. In fact, Maryland's public schools are among the most racially segregated in America. Compare Virginia. Remember its ''massive resistance'' to racial integration? Today more than half of Virginia's black children go to schools in which a majority of the students are white. In Maryland, less than one quarter do. (In both states about one third of the students are black.)

The difference may be that Maryland is more urbanized. Most of our black students are trapped in Baltimore. Segregated suburban housing patterns will keep them there unless their education gives them the tools to break out. Even though the city already has the highest tax rate in the state, it has less than half the wealth per student that the surrounding counties can tax to support good schools.

In 1987, the governor and the General Assembly adopted the Action Plan for Educational Excellence (APEX) to deal with the disparities. This spring, despite the state's budget crisis, they somehow found the money for the third and final stage of the phased-in funding for the program.

APEX, however, will never close the gap. First, it controls only 50 percent of the state's education aid. Half of the rest actually works against equal funding because it goes disproportionately to the wealthier counties. Second, the APEX equalization formula is seriously flawed. It only applies to a fraction of the actual per-pupil costs -- about half the actual statewide average cost and even less of what the wealthier counties spend.

Finally, APEX won't make up the difference because overall state aid to education in Maryland still constitutes such a low percentage of total education costs when compared with other states.

Most other states also base their public school financing on the wealth of local subdivisions. Since 1989, however, the highest courts in Kentucky, Texas, New Jersey, Tennessee and Montana have all thrown out these school-financing systems and required their legislatures to devise equal ones.

Educational funding in this state is still grossly unfair. In Baltimore it deprives a disadvantaged, discriminated against and locked-in racial minority of an equal opportunity to take advantage of what is now government's most important function. But on its own, the state government isn't going to allocate the hundreds of millions of dollars necessary to correct the inequities.

This is a classic case of unequal protection of the laws. Nine years ago the Maryland Court of Appeals didn't have the courage to do anything about it. It's time for Baltimore to give the judges another chance.

Tim Baker writes on issues of city and state.

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