Sensible State School Aid

October 31, 1993

A gubernatorial advisory commission has come up with some sensible suggestions for enhancing the state's school-aid program that not only should help Maryland's poorer jurisdictions but could put considerable pressure on under-performing schools to do a better job of educating students.

That the commission wants to add $291 million to state school aid over five years is not novel. Such incremental increases have been routine during the past quarter-century. What's exciting is the way this money would be distributed. The emphasis is on local accountability, improvement plans and helping counties address the educational needs of poor children.

If the commission's basic proposal is finally adopted in December, Baltimore City schools would be a big winner -- but only if local officials come up with an approved plan of action to upgrade city schools. If matters don't improve, the state could well end up stripping the city of its control over the worst-performing schools.

The commission has set out a $4,800 spending average per student as its goal. This is based not on a numerical statewide average -- as in the past -- but on the spending patterns of the best-performing school systems in Maryland: Carroll, Howard and Frederick counties. These jurisdictions placed at the top of the Maryland School Performance Tests. These counties have shown that they have enough money to educate their students effectively; the commission wants all other jurisdictions to receive that same level of funding.

Two other changes are noteworthy: A broader definition of poverty will give more money to all jurisdictions in the form of a "poverty grant" to help impoverished kids in school; and a targeted-aid program focused on impoverished schools will award money on a competitive basis after schools submit improvement plans. The idea is to get state money to distressed schools and to make sure this money is spent wisely.

Gaining legislative approval won't be easy. Montgomery County lawmakers are already going ballistic: not only will Montgomery receive less extra money than it would under current law, but the county would have to start paying for future rises in teacher retirement costs.

The cap on state teacher-retirement aid could be the most divisive aspect. All subdivisions would be forced to pick up future increases in teacher retirement expenses. That won't please localities. In the end, the cap may have to be modified.

This plan is good for Baltimore City and for most other jurisdictions in Maryland. It targets money for schools in distress. It puts pressure on local school officials to improve performance, or lose state aid. It would be a commendable step toward the day when even the poorest jurisdictions in Maryland have the wherewithal to offer their children a quality education.

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