What's Schmoke up to?

June 17, 1993

A year ago, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke was talking about suing the state of Maryland in order to collect more state education aid. The disparity between what the state's richest school district spends per pupil ($7,377 in Montgomery County) and what the poorest jurisdiction spends ($4,706 in Caroline County) is massive.

Montgomery County spends 58 percent per pupil more than Caroline and 42 percent more than the city on its schools. It can do so because of the great wealth within Montgomery. That's why the county's school system is so superior. This gap in spending helps explain why city schools have such trouble making headway.

Since state politicians seem unwilling to re-direct vast sums of money to poorer schools, Mr. Schmoke reasoned that a lawsuit was the city's best hope, based on favorable court rulings in other states. But now the mayor's strategy has undergone a sudden transformation: he no longer thinks it necessary to sue the state to win more school aid. He believes that by working with a new gubernatorial commission he can gain more money for city schools.

The impact of this approach might not be quite what the mayor expects. While a new school-aid formula could well be favorable to Baltimore City and other poor jurisdictions, it probably won't be more than a Band-Aid. Historically, changes in the formula have only closed the aid gap between rich and poor jurisdictions for a handful of years. Then the disparities return.

So from a policy standpoint, the mayor's action makes no sense. It does make sense, though, from a political perspective. By removing the city from any school-aid lawsuit, Mr. Schmoke may be looking ahead to the 1994 gubernatorial campaign. Candidate Schmoke cannot be burdened by such a controversy; county voters might interpret this suit as a bald attempt to strip state funds from local schools and give the money to the city instead.

Is this a tip-off that Mr. Schmoke is leaning toward a race for governor? He has been making speaking appearances in Southern Maryland and in other parts of the state recently. By this fall, he may get serious about making a decision.

It would not be an easy race. Competition is fierce within the Democratic Party, and Republicans feel they have their best shot in decades to win the governorship. But Mr. Schmoke may feel this is the best way to assure that Baltimore City's dwindling influence in Annapolis is safeguarded. The school-aid court challenge may have been a casualty of that strategy.

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