Taking city schools down a road to nowhere

August 02, 1996|By Kalman R. Hettleman

THE SCHOOL settlement Gov. Parris N. Glendening and Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke are near completing will lead another generation of poor city children down a road paved with good intentions but headed nowhere. The state has tragically lost its way towards equal education opportunity.

Even if augmented by gambling revenue, additional aid for city schools under the settlement is a fraction, at most one-third, of the amount generally recognized as necessary. Because the city's legal claims have statewide impact, children in low-wealth counties will also suffer.

The settlement commits average additional funding of about $40 million a year for five years (packaged as $200 million for five years to appear larger). A gambling payoff might add $25 million a year. By contrast, the 1994 report of the Governor's Commission on School Funding estimated that it would cost at )) least $200 million more a year to meet the needs of city students.

This sum reflected a two-step formula that has evolved over 25 years of hard-fought litigation and legislation in virtually every state. First, the commission recommended additional so-called foundation aid of about $120 million a year to equalize the city's fiscal capacity relative to high-performance, wealthier school systems.

Second, in line with national research, the commission estimated extra costs of $2,000 a year for every low-income child. That's over $100 million annually for the city's nearly 70,000 eligible children.

Reform on the cheap

Obviously, the governor's offer in the $40 million to $65 million range, which is less than 10 percent of the current city school budget, pales by comparison. After inflation and raises in teacher salaries, little is left to reduce the disparities between city and suburban classrooms, much less pay for smaller class sizes, tutoring, counselors and other add-ons needed for at-risk students.

Why has the mayor signed off on such a paltry deal? Because state leaders have given him no choice. The governor's terms are take it or leave it and wait five to 10 years for the litigation to play out. What's more, the state is holding hostage $30 million in current funding until the mayor capitulates.

Why then did so many powerful advocates for children -- including state school Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick and the city's own Del. Howard "Pete" Rawlings and Sen. Barbara Hoffman (members of the commission who signed the report), as well as the Greater Baltimore Committee and The Sun -- pressure the mayor to accept the settlement?

A different outcome was predicted when the American Civil Liberties Union in 1994 and the city in 1995 filed similar suits against the state. The grounds were based on court victories in ** several states.

Adequacy vs. accountability

Yet, the city litigation took a turn that had not occurred anywhere in the country. The state responded by suing the city for mismanagement and demanding a partial takeover of city schools as a condition for more aid.

When the mayor resisted, the focus shifted decisively. The goal of accountability (doing more with less) overshadowed the goal of adequacy (doing more with more).

Even worse, the city was falsely portrayed as wanting one, adequacy, without the other, accountability.

The issue of accountability is misunderstood. The state education bureaucracy extensively regulates all local school systems. State performance tests and the reconstitution process for low-performing schools are the tip of the accountability iceberg.

In fact, the state is unable to cite specific management or instructional improvements that the city is resisting. No one disputes city Superintendent Walter G. Amprey's openness to reform. But state leaders privately deride what they view as his management flaws and the mayor's unsteady surrogate command.

So what the state really means by accountability is a change in leadership at the top. The city-state partnership in the settlement became a vehicle to dispose of the superintendent and dilute the mayor's role.

Even so, the mayor made clear his willingness to go along with the partnership -- if enough money were put on the table. This was misrepresented by state leaders and the media as opposition to accountability.

Devaluing the money issue

Still, the question remains: Why couldn't city partisans get the pot sweetened? The conventional answer is political realities.

The state budget is tight, and the city's political atrophy has accelerated in these conservative times.

Still, Ms. Hoffman and Mr. Rawlings, budget chairpersons in their chambers and zealous champions for children, have immense statewide muscle. Ms. Hoffman recently remarked, "When you want to find the money, you find the money." Another $100 million would be about one-half of 1 percent of the state budget.

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