School funds, success studied

State task force to develop base cost for good education

Aid formula may change

January 26, 2001|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

As a prominent state task force studies how much money it takes for schools to be successful, Bodkin Elementary is a natural place to look.

The percentage of third-graders scoring "satisfactory" at the Anne Arundel County school is almost double the state average, and Bodkin in Pasadena was one of 10 schools to be named Maryland Blue Ribbon winners last fall by the State Department of Education.

But when Principal Rocco Ferretti opens his school's financial books, there won't be much to find beyond the county's standard per-pupil allotment. The PTA raises about $10,000 a year to help - about $15 per pupil - but Ferretti believes the answer can't always be found in more money.

"We don't really receive much more than the typical Anne Arundel County elementary school," Ferretti says. "What has been so important for Bodkin has been attitude - by teachers, parents and students - that we can succeed and that failure is not an option. You can't buy that."

The finances of Bodkin - and 58 other successful Maryland schools identified this week - will provide the backbone for a plan that is likely to call for an extensive restructuring of how Maryland finances its public schools. The first step is to create a bottom line for how much it costs to fund a good school in an average neighborhood.

"These are schools that are meeting the standards we have set, and now we have to determine what are the adequate resources it took for them to achieve," says state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick.

The 59 schools were selected by state educators from among 114 meeting Maryland's standards in such areas as testing and attendance. Geography, school size and student demographics were considered in narrowing the list of schools to study. Magnet schools and those with selective admissions criteria were eliminated.

And the schools - which are almost exclusively located in middle-class and high-income communities - won't be the only models for analyzing the cost of success for Maryland pupils.

After figuring out the base cost of a successful school in an average community, consultants and experts will face what may be a more daunting task: deciding how much more should go to schools serving many pupils with extra needs, whether it's poverty, unfamiliarity with English or disabilities.

The state task force of legislators, educators, local elected officials and others will attempt to persuade the General Assembly next year to make major changes in how Maryland gives aid to its 24 school systems - to ensure greater equity among jurisdictions and excellence in all of them.

"It will be very controversial, as it has been in every other state," says Alvin Thornton, task force chairman and former head of Prince George's County school board. In the meantime, the "Thornton Commission," as the task force is known, will have to grapple with the fact that many of the state's top-performing schools achieve success with widely varying amounts of funding.

At Baltimore County's Loch Raven High School, Principal Keith Harmeyer knows exactly how much he has to spend: $171,700 to cover books for English classes, broccoli for family studies, photocopies and the cost of renting Towson University for graduation ceremonies. That's based on the county's formula of $160 per student, plus a little more for special-education costs.

But Harmeyer - whose school was one of four Baltimore County high schools picked for the study - recognizes that Loch Raven's needs are less than at some other schools because of its middle-class student body.

"Look at graphic calculators, which are required for just about every math class," he says. "I don't have to go out and buy a whole set for every classroom, because ... almost all of the students are able to go out and buy their own."

By contrast, extra money given to Baltimore City College has made a critical difference in that school's success, says Principal Joseph Wilson. He has used it to cut average class sizes from 37 students to 23 students, while cleaning the building and improving the learning atmosphere.

City College is not among the 59 to be studied because it's a magnet school, though Wilson has been appointed to a panel for a separate analysis. "I think that what we're doing and how much we're spending ought to be thought of and considered," Wilson says.

Differences in how much school systems spend are tied largely to how much money their local governments set aside for education. Maryland's wealthiest system, Montgomery County, spent $8,592 per student for the 1998-1999 school year, compared with $6,222 per student in the system that spends the least, Harford County. The state's average per-pupil spending was $7,132.

Since 1970, the state has had 11 commissions and task forces charged with studying school financing and accountability. The state's current formula for distributing the bulk of its aid dates to a 1972 study, but the formula has been modified many times.

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