Schmoke's Choice: Shortchange Kids or Rile State

BARRY RASCOVAR

May 31, 1992|By BARRY RASCOVAR

No matter how he approaches the school-aid problem, Kurt Schmoke's in a lose-lose situation.

If he accepts the status quo for Baltimore City, local students could be stuck with less than their fair share of the fiscal pie. If he goes to court to force the state to give city kids the same kind of quality education kids elsewhere in the state receive, the mayor could strike out on other fiscal requests to Annapolis.

What's a mayor to do? Shortchange the city's children or infuriate the powers in the State House?

He has picked the latter course. That's an intellectually honorable decision. But it could also become a politically injudicious move.

No one who has visited the city's schools can deny that kids there are receiving a vastly inferior education. Kids attending public schools in many rural counties, such as Garrett, St. Mary's, Caroline and Somerset, are equally disadvantaged.

The reason is clear. Rich counties can afford to spend more on their kids than poor counties. The state is supposed to make up the difference. After all, Maryland's constitution specifies, "The General Assembly . . . shall by Law establish throughout the State a thorough and efficient System of Free Public Schools; and shall provide by taxation, or otherwise, for their maintenance."

Is this "System of Free Public Schools" established by the General Assembly "thorough and efficient" throughout Maryland? Test scores indicate that it is not. An affluent county like Montgomery can afford to spend $7,591 on each of its students but a poor subdivision like the city can afford to spend only $4,947. That's a $2,644 gap per pupil.

Imagine what $2,644 could buy for a poor city student. As columnist Tim Baker has pointed out, that equates to $80,000 a )) year for each class. It equates to nearly $4 million more per high school. It equals an incredible $32 million more spent on the schools this poor city student would attend from kindergarten through 12th grade.

Would this $32 million make a difference in the quality of education for that poor child? You bet it would.

Sure, the city has its bloated school bureaucracy (Montgomery's is far worse). Sure, the city could spend more of its own money if it cut such "frills" as fire houses or rec centers. But there remains the central question: When will the state live up to its constitutional obligation to make schools in Garrett, Somerset, Caroline, Cecil, St. Mary's and Baltimore City "thorough and efficient"?

Over the years, legislators and governors have tried to find an acceptable compromise: Give the poor subdivisions more education aid, but not enough to upset the state's fiscal situation. This periodic infusion of funds, though, has not been large enough to close the gap between rich schools and poor schools.

This past General Assembly session, legislators from many of these affluent counties stuck their political necks out and approved $184 million in new school funds weighted heavily toward poorer districts. This was their way of demonstrating commitment to the city and other poor jurisdictions.

It was a courageous act. It was the right thing to do. Yet poor schools remain disadvantaged. There is nothing on the Annapolis horizon to indicate a willingness to make the situation truly equitable.

Faced with this bleak outlook, Mayor Schmoke had a choice to make: offend all those well-meaning suburban legislators who had gone to bat for the city schools this past session or try to gain constitutional equity for the city's children.

The mayor has every right to join a suit against the state. And legislators have every right to be incensed that their hard work is being rewarded with a slap in the face.

Legislators from affluent counties also realize that if the city were to win this case, the state would have to come up with perhaps another $1 billion in new school aid through higher taxes or cuts in state aid to localities. Suburban constituents would object to either option.

The danger for the mayor is that in winning the theoretical battle, he might lose the political war. Many legislators could refuse to help the city on any fiscal matter. Even if the courts order the state to devise a more equitable school-financing plan, suburban lawmakers could cut other city aid in return.

Gov. William Donald Schaefer also is acting like the wronged Good Samaritan. The new school aid this past session is a Schaefer proposal dating back to 1987. He feels slighted by the city's unwillingness to accept this generous but clearly insufficient financial offer.

In crass terms, the new school aid amounts to "hush money." The governor and legislators want the city to take this cash and keep its mouth shut. Don't run to the courts. Don't complain about the remaining inequities in rich vs. poor schools. Be submissively satisfied with the extra $42 million the city is getting this year for its schools.

Mr. Schmoke opted to take the high road. No hush money for him. No submissive groveling at the governor's and the legislature's feet, thanking them for their largess -- even while the city's schools remain abysmally deficient.

The mayor decided to stand up for his principles. That took courage. But will the city end up paying a steep price in political retribution for the mayor's integrity?

Barry Rascovar is editorial-page director of The Sun.

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