Equal Educational Opportunity

May 17, 1992

Every child in Maryland deserves an adequate education. Some aren't getting it. Baltimore City and poor counties such as Somerset, Garrett and Caroline lack the resources to meet the needs of all students.

As long as this is true, the entire state is disadvantaged.

There is renewed talk of a legal challenge to Maryland's system of paying for schools, which relies heavily on local taxes. Such a suit was filed in 1979, but the state's highest court, the Court of Appeals, found no constitutional violation.

In its decision, written by Chief Judge Robert C. Murphy, the court said, "Simply to show that the educational resources available to the poorer school districts in the state are inferior to those in the rich districts" does not mean the state fails to provide enough money "for all students to obtain an adequate education." That might leave the door open for a successful suit based on adequacy -- or its lack -- rather than concentrating on the differences between the haves and the have-nots.

A legal challenge may be the only way to solve the problem. The 1979 suit came after officials in Baltimore City and the rural counties concluded there was insufficient political will to end this inequity. Two rounds of census-driven redistricting have only increased the voting power of the relatively well-to-do suburbs while reducing urban and rural representation. And the current economic climate makes suburban legislators even less likely to agree to a solution which would -- one way or another -- take more money from the suburbs to help urban and rural schools.

While a political solution seems unlikely, it is preferable to a legal one -- for both the haves and the have-nots. The haves avoid the possibility of a court decision that is harsher for them than a political compromise -- such as a court ruling capping spending in the wealthy counties. The have-nots avoid the possibility of spending millions of dollars in legal and related costs and coming away with nothing -- as happened last time. While supporters of a suit point to several other states where similar cases have succeeded in the past few years, so did supporters of the 1979 suit.

A political solution would be painful. Estimates of how much money is needed to bring just Baltimore up to general state standards have been in the range of $200 million a year. More money for urban and rural districts can only mean hefty new taxes, a cut in state aid to suburban districts (and local tax increases in the suburbs to compensate) or a cut in other state programs (unpalatable after the cuts of the past year).

But the lack of a solution would be more painful: a downward spiral for Baltimore City and the rural counties, which would inevitably drag down with it the economy and quality of life of the entire region and state.

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