Schmoke's dilemma

August 04, 1994|By Frank A. DeFilippo

THE SCHMOKE administration -- with a helping hand from the American Civil Liberties Union -- is preparing to sue the state for additional funding for Baltimore's troubled school system.

Depending upon when the suit is filed, it could have unintended adverse effects on the gubernatorial campaign of Prince George's County Executive Parris Glendening in his home territory in of the Washington suburbs.

Mr. Schmoke's office has told the Washington law firm of Hogan & Hartson to put the city's complaint into final form. Upon receipt, the mayor will decide when to file it. The ACLU will join the suit in behalf of students and parents.

The mayor's staff is split over when the suit should be filed. One group wants it filed immediately -- before the Sept. 13 primary election -- so the issue of state school funding can become a matter of campaign discourse.

Another group contends that the legal action should be delayed until after the election to avoid hurting Mr. Glendening's chances.

In either case, the action by the city would have serious political implications on Mr. Glendening's campaign, especially in Montgomery County where he is the front-running Democrat for governor.

Mr. Glendening has been endorsed by Mr. Schmoke and the mayor's political enforcer, lawyer Larry Gibson, is co-managing Mr. Glendening's campaign in the city as well as assisting with political chores in Prince George's County.

If the suit is filed during the campaign, the action would raise the issue of how Mr. Glendening could align himself with Mr. Schmoke who is trying to increase funding for Baltimore's school system at the expense of the Washington suburbs.

This would not be the first time the city went to court over school funding. A dozen years ago when he was mayor, Gov. William Donald Schaefer sued the state for additional funding and lost. That legal action was based on equity or equal spending for every pupil in the state.

However, the new approach being prepared on behalf of the city is based on "adequate" spending. The theory involves no precise dollar amounts but asks for whatever amount of money it takes to provide children with an adequate education. The suit will argue that adequate education is not a question of how much money is spent, but how effectively it's put to work.

To measure what constitutes an adequate education, the suit would also require new programs and new ways to determine effectiveness.

The vagueness of the language and the steady poor performance of city pupils suggests that the tab for adequacy could add up to millions. The novel theory of adequate education being a constitutional right is being tested in courts in several other state.

In an ironic twist, the lawsuit does, in effect, force Mr. Schmoke and school officials to indirectly acknowledge that Baltimore's school system is failing to do its job and that pupils are receiving an inadequate education.

The city's total education budget is close to $700 million, about half of Baltimore's total operating budget. About half that amount is shipped in by the state.

Baltimore City currently spends $5,391 per pupil, $587 below the state average of $5,978 and $2,391 below the per-pupil spending in Montgomery County -- or $240 million more for about the same number (110,000) of pupils.

The difference is that the largely middle-class, well-educated Montgomery County subsidizes its schools to a large degree. Its school system produces more Merit Scholars than any system in the country. Baltimore County spends $6,203 per pupil.

The State Board of Education recently had threatened to take over several city schools.

However, after resistance by students and opposition from city school administrators and the teachers union, an agreement was reached between the state and the city to implement new programs and standards to upgrade student performance.

And in other efforts to improve results in city schools, the city has turned over several schools to a private contractor, Educational Alternatives Inc., and has established Sylvan Learning Center laboratories in several others. And in Charles Village, the city has allowed one school to adopt the Calvert School curriculum to improve the performance of its pupils.

Ever since Mr. Schaefer sued the state, there has been bitter relations between the city and Montgomery County. And it's ironic that the states aid to education program was devised in the late 1960's by two Montgomery County legislators, former Sen. Blair Lee III and former Del. Lucille Maurer, to help the city.

And now school funding could become the central issue in the campaign for governor.

Frank A. DeFilippo writes on Maryland politics from Owings Mills.

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