Reading the Messages from Annapolis

ARTHUR BOYD

April 23, 1993|By ARTHUR BOYD

Much was heard during the recent Maryland General Assembly session about ''messages'' being sent by legislators who signal their disfavor of an agency or department by withholding funds or eliminating positions.

Del. Howard ''Pete'' Rawlings took a beating from Baltimore Sun columnists for his threat to withhold funds in an effort to force rapid adoption of management reforms in Baltimore City public schools. It may have been, as one columnist wrote, a ''ham-handed'' way of sending a message, and in the end the threat was withdrawn.

But it would be foolhardy to ignore the message. Pete Rawlings knows the hard truth of Annapolis: There will be no substantial increase in funds to the woefully under-funded city schools until there is confidence in Annapolis that the dollars are being well spent. For his part, Baltimore school superintendent Walter Amprey is pushing forward the recommended management reforms. But patience is running thin in Annapolis.

Mr. Rawlings was criticized for using a big stick, but he is also trying to use a carrot. Together with Sen. Barbara Hoffman, Mr. Rawlings has been the prime sponsor for three years of the New Action Plan for Educational Excellence (New APEX). This bill, developed by the Maryland Education Coalition, would send about $150 million added dollars to the city's schools (and proportional amounts to other Maryland schools) if they can demonstrate how they would spend the money to improve student performance.

Approve his methods or not, at least Delegate Rawlings is willing to stand up and try to do something to improve the city's schools.

Throwing bricks at poor-performing schools is always good for raising a politician's political capital. But when offered a chance to actually do something about the problem, what happens? This year the Hoffman-Rawlings school-performance accountability provisions of ''New APEX'' were offered as a separate bill. Sponsored by Montgomery County Sen. Laurence Levitan, this bill had a brief moment of life -- but lost favor, in part, because it held all Maryland schools to the same standards expected of the city schools.

The final days of the legislative session may have included one final message. If so, it is a disturbing one.

For years now the poorest communities in Maryland with the poorest school systems have been pleading for more equitable state aid. Overall education funding has gone up, in spite of recession and declining state revenues. This is a sign of public and legislative support for education. By giving special increases this year for Extended Elementary Education programs and the Maryland's Tomorrow dropout-prevention program, the legislature focused on the right priorities: prevention and early intervention.

Yet, in total, all these increases have not kept pace with inflation or with the growing student population. According to Sue Buswell, executive director of the Maryland Association of Boards of Education, ''over half of the local boards found themselves with net decreases over last year's budgets after the Social Security cuts of the earlier special session were factored in.''

Nor have recent increases redressed the growing inequalities. During the three-year struggle for ''New APEX,'' the gap between poorest school system and wealthiest school system has grown from over $77,000 per classroom (of 30), to nearly $91,000. If the poorest schools are asked to meet the same standards as their wealthier neighbors, then in return they ask to compete on a level playing field. Education advocates have been sending this message, louder each year, through rallies, letters, testimony at hearings.

Now comes the latest reply: Final budget action cut $20.2 million from the one school-aid program that benefits mostly the poorer schools (the current APEX formula) and gave back bonuses for attendance and Limited English Proficiency programs which benefit primarily the wealthier jurisdictions. Here's how it settled out: The poorest school system got back 21 percent of its education cut through the bonuses, the wealthiest school system got back 307 percent of its education cut.

If there is a legislative message in this to the poorer schools, it seems to be ''So sue us!''

If that is not the intended message, the legislative leadership had better find a way of sending a different message, fast. Annapolis is not the only place where patience is running thin.

Arthur Boyd is executive director of the Maryland Education Coalition.

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