Smoke Signals from Schmoke?

June 22, 1993

Do we detect a whiff of political positioning in Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's decision not to sue the state over inadequate school funds? Is Mr. Schmoke edging ever-closer to running for governor? Or do these smoke signals indicate the mayor simply wants to cut the best deal for Baltimore City on increased state support for city schools?

Both options might be part of the mayor's strategy. By shelving the lawsuit, Mr. Schmoke clears the deck of a potential hazard to his gubernatorial ambitions. When the mayor said last year he wanted the courts to order the state to spend more money on poor school districts, he generated tremendous animus in influential Montgomery County, the state's biggest and wealthiest subdivision. Before Mr. Schmoke can run for the Governor's Mansion, he must convince voters in Montgomery and other rich counties he is a friend, not a foe.

Dropping the idea of a lawsuit certainly has the earmarkings of a political step in that direction. But it could also serve another purpose: signaling state lawmakers that the city is willing to work with a gubernatorial commission on a new school-aid formula to close the gap between rich and poor school districts. Mr. Schmoke's cooperative approach could spur lawmakers to make broad changes in the aid formula that would help poor school districts such as Baltimore City.

This approach won't lead to a long-term solution. Past changes in the state's aid formula have not closed the spending gap between rich and poor school districts for long. After four or five years, the disparity returns to previous levels and starts widening again. Erasing this gap would require a tremendous cut in aid to wealthy counties or a massive increase in the $1.8 billion state aid package. Neither step is a realistic possibility at this time.

If Mr. Schmoke intends to run for governor, dropping the lawsuit is a political plus. Yet without a judicial mandate, leaders in Annapolis might not have the backbone to make wholesale alterations in the way school aid is handed out. It's a calculated gamble. Mr. Schmoke may have stepped much closer to declaring his gubernatorial intentions, but in the process he may have discarded a valuable high card in the school-aid poker game.

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