School Aid vs. School Aid


In budgeting, everything is a trade-off. Hire more police or buy new fire equipment. Hold down tuition at public colleges or give professors a raise. Build a space station or enlarge Head Start. Maryland may be seeing the beginnings of an unusual budget trade-off: building schools over running schools.

The state pays about 40 percent of the cost of operating public elementary and secondary schools, with local governments paying most of the rest. For years, there has been concern over the disparity between rich and poor school districts. Relatively well-off suburban school districts spend as much as $7,544 per pupil (Montgomery County) while Baltimore and rural districts spend considerably less; Caroline County is lowest in the state at $4,898. (Montgomery has $394,372 in taxable wealth per pupil, according to the state formula; Caroline has $119,819.)

Roughly every five years, the state rediscovers this gap and appoints a blue-ribbon commission. The commission, unwilling to take money away from anybody, suggests putting more in the pot and tilting it slightly toward the poor districts. The legislature agrees. The poor districts get a little more money, but they keep getting poorer, and five years later, the state is surprised to notice the spending gap is as big as it ever was. A new commission is named.

That, at least, was the cycle until this year. When the latest blue-ribbon panel reported, however, the governor and legislature said they didn't have the money to fix state aid for school operations.

The same governor and legislature, however, made a great show of finding money to increase state aid for school construction. Why money to build schools, but not more money to run them? For one thing, school construction is a relatively small program -- $94 million this fiscal year -- and the general school aid program is a huge one -- about $2 billion. The governor and the legislature can make a substantial percentage increase in school construction for not very much money. The $94 million is a 44 percent increase over three years ago -- but not so many dollars in a budget of more than $13 billion.

Also, construction brings concrete returns. All of those ''reforms'' sparked by all of those commissions haven't made a dent in the disparity in spending between rich and poor districts. They haven't improved the schools -- at least, measures of student achievement have been pretty much unchanged. And they've cost a bundle -- spending increased over a 10-year period by more than 40 percent in constant dollars.

On the other hand, when the state awards money to build a school, you can touch the result. Building schools has a clear political return, too. Legislators can return to their districts for a ribbon cutting -- and to remind the voters who helped get the money for that nice, new school. Construction funding has gone up and down depending on the state's financial health, but it tends to go up in election years.

The process of spending state money on building schools is somewhat complex. The legislature appropriates the money. The Interagency Committee on School Construction makes recommendations. And the Board of Public Works makes the final decisions.

The Interagency Committee has always made a great effort to focus on such technical details as enrollment projections and cost per square foot. But the process has become more blatantly political. It reached a peak (or valley) this year, when Governor Schaefer persuaded the Board of Public Works to kill school-construction projects in the districts of two legislative committee chairmen who had opposed some Schaefer-administration legislation.

After all the politics were played out this year, three wealthy suburban counties -- Montgomery, Howard and Frederick -- wound up with 44 percent of the money. These are places where there's a real need for school construction; enrollment is growing. But, in effect, that school construction in Montgomery and Howard and Frederick is being subsidized by Baltimore and by Caroline County.

Aside from the fact that state-paid school construction is a case of taking from the poor to give to the rich, there's another reason to be concerned about it. Legislators can vote for more school-construction money and feel good -- so good they don't remember there's a problem with school-operating money.

M. William Salganik is editor of the Perspective section and a former education writer. Intern William Jay provided research assistance.

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