Education on the wane Maintenance of effort: County leaders may undercut state's competitiveness.

February 08, 1996

"TO ENSURE additional state aid does not result in reductions in local support, existing 'maintenance of effort' requirements to fund education should continue." So concluded a report, not written in the halcyon days of Maryland's 1980s real estate boom, but just two years ago. As recently as January 1994, the Governor's Commission on School Funding understood that a strong local commitment to education funding is in Maryland's long-term interest.

Unfortunately, many county leaders and state legislators are now moving at break-neck speed to undercut the state's "maintenance of effort" law. Faced with school enrollments that are growing faster than property tax bases, many counties are indeed struggling to fund their share of education. Instead of asking for a waiver as they did during the recession, they're trying to undo the 10-year-old law that created a baseline for local school funding. It decreed that jurisdictions should spent at least as much per pupil as in the previous year.

County officials are simply covering their own bottoms, but need to adopt a macro-view. The question isn't who holds the upper-hand in their annual budget squabble with their local school board, but how does Maryland fare nationally? Gov. Parris N. Glendening understands that, since he has proposed increasing school spending even in a flat state budget.

Maryland is already slipping, from eighth in per-pupil spending in 1990 to 13th in 1994, according to the state education department. The list of states ahead of us reads like a who's who of nearby business competitors: Delaware, Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey.

The education community shares a measure of shame, too. So fearful was the Maryland Association of Boards of Education of ceding some of the local school boards' vast authority over spending discretion, it was willing to kiss off at least $50 million in aid to keep the dogs at bay in Annapolis. Fortunately, some of its member boards testified in opposition.

Advocates point to support from state school Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick and the school boards' group as proof of consensus. Believe that and you believe the kid in the schoolyard, who has just been rolled for his lunch money, but says he wasn't hungry anyway. This is bad for Maryland.

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