Killing a bad program

November 11, 1992

Does it make sense to have a state aid-to-education program in which the poor subsidize the rich? A program which pays nearly $250 per pupil to wealthy Montgomery County and $160 to rural Somerset County? One which pays $225 per pupil to Baltimore County and $150 to Baltimore City? Of course it doesn't.

For years, Maryland has picked up the tab for Social Security and pension payments for teachers and school administrators. This program funnels the biggest chunks of state money to counties with the most favorable pupil-teacher ratios and the highest teacher salaries -- those that need state aid the least.

Needing to cut $500 million to balance the budget this year, the state wants to push the $147 million in Social Security payments (librarians and community college staff are also included) back to the local governments. The issue may be decided at a special legislative session next Wednesday.

Local governments are understandably unhappy about such a cut coming several months into a fiscal year. State officials deserve their share of blame for accepting wildly optimistic revenue forecasts and refusing to deal with the full scope of the state's budget crisis last year. Given that some cuts had to be made, however, the state would be wise to end this reverse Robin Hood program in which only six counties receive more than the state average per-pupil payment. (The largest chunk of the benefit goes to Montgomery. Also on the plus side, to smaller degrees, are Anne Arundel, Baltimore County, Howard, Worcester and Kent.)

Ending this subsidy for the rich would be "an affront to the educational establishment of this state," complains Del. Michael R. Gordon, a Montgomery Democrat. His colleague, John Hurson, threatens revenge by the Montgomery delegation. "You're going to have a bunch of angry delegates who are lawyers wandering around committee rooms filling up Molotov cocktails," he said.

This is not the time for Molotov cocktails. Far more constructive is the approach of Charles I. Ecker, Howard County executive, who said that eliminating state payment of teachers' Social Security taxes "is the simplest, fairest, structural change that can be made."

And next, the state should look at teacher pension payments, a similarly regressive aid program which costs not $147 million but $380 million. That's too big a chunk for local governments to swallow at once, but the state should study ways to redistribute that money in a manner that enhances, rather than undercuts, equity efforts.

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