School Aid: Art of the Possible

June 06, 1993

In constructing his 22-member commission to study state aid to education, Gov. William Donald Schaefer has wisely picked a panel that can get something passed in an election year. The real question is whether it can get something passed that will truly make a difference.

The commission, which will report this fall for action by the 1994 legislature, is chaired by Donald P. Hutchinson. As president of the state Chamber of Commerce and as a former Baltimore County executive and state senator, Mr. Hutchinson is familiar with the needs of many constituencies.

The panel also includes key legislators such as Laurence Levitan, D-Montgomery, who chairs the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee, and Howard P. Rawlings, D-Baltimore, who chairs the House Appropriations Committee. The governor has carefully chosen a group likely to produce a program that it can sell.

Experience, however, teaches us that getting something passed not enough. Roughly every five years, the state notices that wealthy suburban school districts are spending thousands of dollars per classroom more than urban and rural districts. A blue-ribbon panel is named. The group's recommendations are passed, and the state increases spending on education. But the disparity between rich and poor districts hardly changes. In a few years, another commission begins the cycle anew.

No study panel -- especially one as broad-based and politically attuned as the Hutchinson commission -- is about to recommend "Robin Hood" actions to take money away from the suburbs. Nor is such a recommendation a good idea; there is little to be gained from "leveling down" the districts which are doing relatively well.

On the other hand, at a time when the state's coffers are hardly overflowing, no panel will recommend a package that creates a new budget crisis in Annapolis by dumping in so much "new" school money it boosts the suburbs while giving even larger increases to urban and rural districts.

The most likely prospect for 1994 is a moderate reform -- more money promised in future years but only a modest narrowing of the disparities between rich and poor schools. A moderate change is better than none at all. But as the state begins to apply stricter accountability standards for student performance, it will become even more intolerable that students who need the most help generally have the fewest resources. While some school-aid proposal will probably pass in the next legislative session, don't be surprised to see yet another commission established -- say, about 1999.

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