A Thorough and Efficient Education

January 08, 1994|By GLENN McNATT

The report of the Governor's Commission on School Funding is due out later this month and critics already are predicting that its recommendations will be DOA -- dead on arrival.

There's no money in the state's coffers for increasing aid to Maryland's poorest jurisdictions, skeptics say, and no one expects the wealthier subdivisions to give up a portion of what they now receive in order to help their less fortunate neighbors.

The only other way to increase funding for poor school districts would be through a tax increase. But with an election coming up, don't hold your breath waiting.

So when the report finally comes out, it will be put on a shelf to gather dust alongside all the other reports that have said essentially the same thing for the past decade. As they say in church, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

Except this year, there may be a bump in the road. An article by law professor Susan P. Leviton and her associate, Matthew H. Joseph, in the Maryland Law Review warns that Maryland risks a lawsuit if it does not take immediate action to redress the gross disparities in school funding between the state's richest and poorest subdivisions. Last year the state's poor jurisdictions dropped plans to sue the state over school funding only at the last minute because of concern the wealthier subdivisions might retaliate politically.

The authors believe that the courts may be forced to intervene because so many of the state's schools are clearly in violation of the Maryland Constitution's requirement that all children receive ''thorough and efficient'' education.

Ms. Leviton and Mr. Joseph argue that children in the state's poorest jurisdictions receive an education that is neither ''thorough'' nor ''efficient'' in terms of preparing them for the workplace or to serve as effective citizens.

They also compare Maryland's ''thorough and efficient'' standard with similar clauses in other state constitutions and conclude that Maryland cannot avoid its constitutional responsibility by pleading poverty. They note that the legislative session that begins next Wednesday may be Maryland's last opportunity to address the serious inequities in the state's public school funding formula without a costly and divisive lawsuit.

The authors lay particular emphasis on the economic and social consequences for Maryland of continued failure to properly educate its poorest children:

''The fact that poor children do not have access to the same quality of instruction as their more well-off peers threatens to shatter [the American] ideal of equal opportunity,'' they write. ''The growing disparity in education threatens to undermine and destroy not only the democratic concepts of fairness and equal opportunity, but may also create a permanent and isolated caste of undereducated, underskilled and under- employed citizens.''

Ms. Leviton and Mr. Joseph's analysis of these trends is straightforward. As the nation ages demographically, the working-age population increasingly will be called upon to support the Baby Boomers turned senior citizens in their retirement.

Yet the very poor children whom we are not educating properly today will become an ever growing proportion of future workers.

Since the jobs of the future require high-tech skills only quality education can provide, the door is shutting on poor children just as we are becoming more reliant on them. ''Americans can ignore these children only by risking their own prosperity,'' the authors write, ''since these children will either become the backbone of the national economy or prove to be the deadweight that sinks the country's economic ship.''

Maryland can either pay now or pay later. Thousands of children are dropping out of school or graduating with poor skills each year. They become unproductive adults who drain public resources, failing into welfare or filling the jails. In 1992, Maryland spent more than $2.6 billion on welfare, medical assistance for the poor and prisons. That's a 100 percent increase in just five years.

All Marylanders pay for the failure of schools in the state's poorest jurisdictions. Everyone suffers from the crime caused by the desperate and the undereducated. The state loses the taxes that are not paid by unproductive citizens. By the same token, helping poor children do better in school helps all Marylanders.

That's why lawmakers who think it is folly to help poor school children this year are wrong. The problem can't be ignored any longer. The only response that that truly makes sense is to act now to address the school crisis, before it is too late.

Glenn McNatt writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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