Schmoke says city will sue state Baltimore, other poor districts seek more funding from the state for education.

May 15, 1992|By Michael A. Fletcher | Michael A. Fletcher,Staff Writer

The average expenditure per pupil in Baltimore City's public schools in the 1990-1991 school year was misstated in an article in yesterday's editions. The correct figure is $4,947.

The Sun regrets the errors.

Frustrated with the slow pace of education-spending reform in Maryland, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke said yesterday that Baltimore will take legal action to force the state to spend more money on poor school districts.

Mr. Schmoke has flirted with the idea of a school funding lawsuit since he became mayor in 1987. But yesterday marked the first time he has said the city would definitely join a lawsuit to force the school funding issue before the state courts.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

"We've gone through a number of legislative sessions and we think that we've given enough time for this to be worked out," Mr. Schmoke said.

After repeatedly expressing hope for legislative reform, Mr. Schmoke said that it now appears that a lawsuit offers the best hope of increasing state spending on Baltimore and other poor school districts in Maryland.

"I agreed that the city would participate," Mr. Schmoke said. "We will participate in a legal challenge to the current" funding formula.

Stuart Comstock-Gay, executive director of the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, one of the groups pushing for a legal challenge, said a suit could be filed within a few months.

It is unclear, however, which school districts and individuals will be named as plaintiffs at this point, he said.

"That is all part of the strategy we're trying to work out," he said. "Things are still a little nebulous. . . . But unless something happens to make a lawsuit moot, we'll be filing it."

Mr. Schmoke said that he has directed the city's law department to work with "private counsel" in developing the suit.

"There are issues to be resolved, such as who will be listed as plaintiffs," he said. "But we will participate."

Mr. Comstock-Gay estimated that the litigation could cost as much as $500,000. He said he expects some private support for the effort. "We've been talking to a lot of people about this," he said. "We think we have a good line on it. But it's not solid yet."

The state's highest court ruled against Baltimore in a 1983 suit seeking equalization of school spending in Maryland. But a new lawsuit would probably offer a constitutional challenge that has proven to be a winning legal tactic in several other states, including Texas, Kentucky and New Jersey, since 1989.

The 1983 lawsuit made an issue out of whether rich and poor school districts receive equal funding. The later lawsuits hinged on whether the states provided school systems with enough money to give students the quality of education guaranteed in the states' constitutions.

The ACLU has spent more than a year researching a possible suit against Maryland. And while the legal strategy is still being developed, the suit is likely to argue that Maryland is failing to meet its constitutional mandate to provide a "thorough and efficient" education to all of its students, Mr. Comstock-Gay said.

"It is pretty clear by most indicators that at least the 'thorough' part is not being met," he said.

Per-pupil education spending totaled $4,614 in Baltimore during the 1990-1991 school year, ranking it 19th of 24 school systems ** in the state. That compares with $7,590 per pupil in Montgomery County, the highest in the state, and $6,219 in Baltimore County. Statewide, school spending that year averaged $5,814 per student.

But the argument would go beyond per-pupil costs. While the city has less money to spend on education than most other school systems in Maryland, it also has a higher percentage of poor students, who tend to need more educational services.

Robert C. Embry Jr., president of the state Board of Education, said, "It is clear, and I don't think anybody disputes it, that the city school system is under-funded. It is also clear that to the kids in the city, given their backgrounds in many cases, public education is more important to them than it is to kids with more stable backgrounds."

Mr. Schmoke said that he held back on a lawsuit for several years hoping that the General Assembly would provide significant new aid to education. While state aid to education has increased, it has not increased enough for the city school system to close the gap with most school systems in the state.

That funding disparity has real effects in the classroom. On average, city schoolchildren have larger classes, fewer books, fewer counselors and lower-paid teachers than most of their Maryland counterparts.

The same is true of most other poor school districts -- a situation education advocates say can only be addressed through the courts. "This is a good time to go back to court on this issue," Mr. Schmoke said.

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