Weaker floor for school spending? Maintenance of effort: Six months after battle in Annapolis, the war of words goes on.

November 08, 1996

MARYLAND'S GENERAL ASSEMBLY passed a school spending law a decade ago called "maintenance of effort." It has a simple premise: To ensure that localities spend as much on each student's education as they did the previous year. It did not seem such an onerous request of local government.

Today, the assembly's Joint Committee on Administrative, Executive and Legislative Review will hear arguments in favor of riddling that declaration with various loopholes. The result could be a setback for Maryland public school students.

The committee, chaired by Baltimore's Sen. John A. Pica Jr. and Baltimore County's Del. John S. Arnick, is taking what may be a last look at some "emergency" clarifications for legislation approved last spring. At issue are the types of spending jurisdictions would be able to exempt from "maintenance of effort" to receive state aid.

County executives argue that the 1985 law penalizes them for spending extra on education in a good year by locking them in at that level in a later weak financial year. Many counties, in fact, are giving at or near the minimum now. Officials want exemptions for spending on computer labs, so-called "start-up" costs, "innovations" and technology, repair projects and perhaps a "catch-all" category, too. The kitchen sink, at last glance, was not among those listed.

Local school board leaders fear this watering down of the original law. No longer will it constitute a solid floor for education spending, but a flimsy "ceiling" riddled with holes.

Unfortunately, last session's dispute was never about ensuring Maryland's education investment. It was about government and school officials, with separate missions and a shared budget, unable to work together. The legislature wisely diluted the original "relief" sought by the Maryland Association of Counties.

While counties may merit some wiggle room in emergencies, the legislature correctly decided that the basic premise of maintenance of effort remains sound. Local governments have a responsibility to hold up their end, especially as the state pumps near-record levels into school construction. Any veiled attempt to undermine maintenance of effort before the AELR committee today deserves to fall on deaf ears.

Pub Date: 11/08/96

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