Panel to study school fund distribution

April 27, 1993|By John W. Frece and Mark Bomster | John W. Frece and Mark Bomster,Staff Writers

Gov. William Donald Schaefer, who substantially boosted state aid for public schools when he took office in 1987, may try to do so again next year.

Mr. Schaefer said yesterday that he will appoint a new commission to study the formula the state uses to distribute money for schools.

He said he wants the commission -- the size and membership of which is yet to be announced -- to recommend changes for consideration by the 1994 General Assembly session, his last as governor.

While Mr. Schaefer did not specifically mention increasing state aid -- Maryland this year is sending more than $2 billion for schools to Baltimore and the 23 counties -- the governor's school superintendent and key legislators said they believed that would be the inevitable result of the commission's work.

To assure that state aid is used wisely, the governor also said he wants the state to start exercising its authority to take over operation of individual schools that do not meet minimum performance standards.

"If a school can't make it, if a principal is not doing the job, if the [test] scores aren't improving, if there is a high dropout rate . . ," Mr. Schaefer said. "I think we'll only have to take over three or four schools and [local school systems] will see we're serious."

The governor's comments drew a generally favorable response from Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, who for years has been threatening to sue the state for providing insufficient aid to poor jurisdictions such as Baltimore. And he said he did not have a problem with the governor's talk of school takeovers -- as long as the threat brought with it more money.

"I haven't had a problem with the state imposing more accountability rules, as long as the state is willing to provide some carrots in achieving those goals," Mr. Schmoke said.

The complicated school aid formula is based on a number of factors, including the number of students in a jurisdiction and its wealth relative to other local governments.

Mr. Schaefer said he believes the formula must be updated to take into account the growing disparity between the amount wealthy and poor jurisdictions spend on each student. In addition, he said issues unrelated to wealth also must be taken into consideration, including differences in school attendance levels, the number of non-English speaking students, and the high cost of special education for disabled students.

"Times have changed," Mr. Schaefer said, noting that the formula has not been overhauled since a task force headed by former U.S. Attorney General Benjamin Civiletti did so in 1983.

Nancy S. Grasmick, the state superintendent of schools, and Del. Howard P. Rawlings, the Baltimore Democrat who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, both said they expect any re-evaluation of the current formula to result in recommendations for more state spending on schools.

"I just can't see how they can avoid that consequence," Mr. Rawlings said. For the past three years, he has introduced legislation that would sharply increase state spending on education by raising from 75 percent to 100 percent the amount the state pays toward the "current basic expense" of educating a student.

"The only way you're going to assure the low-wealth subdivisions are able to provide a fair level of education to their students and to be competitive with those in the wealthier counties is to fund 100 percent of the current basic expense," he said.

Mr. Rawlings noted that any proposal in 1994 to spend more money on schools would surely run smack into the political realities of an election year -- a time when lawmakers will be loathe to raise taxes or to cut other government spending so funds could be shifted to education.

But he warned that if the new commission recommends significant increases in school spending for Baltimore and other poor jurisdictions and the General Assembly refuses to go along, it could prompt those jurisdictions to file the long threatened lawsuit accusing the state of inequitably financing public education.

Mr. Schmoke said that "a draft of the final complaint is being prepared as we speak," but added that when and if it is filed would depend upon several factors. "Clearly we're going to have to factor this new development into our thinking," he said.

Of the governor's comments about taking over schools, Dr. Grasmick said Maryland has had the authority to do so since 1989, but the state education board never has promulgated the necessary regulations.

Under pressure from the legislature, she said the rules are now being drafted and should be in place before the end of the year.

The state has already identified 27 schools that are in trouble -- 16 in Baltimore, seven in Montgomery County and four in Prince George's.

But Dr. Grasmick said by the time the state is prepared to take over any specific schools, those 27 may have improved their performance sufficiently to be spared such embarrassment.

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