Public schools lack state help

March 18, 2001|By Barry Rascovar

WHAT GOOD does it do to put your resources into Maryland's colleges and universities when the state's public schools are on the brink of hard times?

That's one of the contradictions in Gov. Parris N. Glendening's recent decision to pour vast sums of tax dollars into the University System of Maryland and other public colleges.

While he's focused on higher-ed improvements, K-12 is in trouble.

The governor's generosity for his old stomping ground (where he could return in 2003 as chancellor) is stunning. USM got a $112 million operating fund boost on top of $162 million in construction projects.

In all, higher education raked in $430 million of capital funds. Operating funds rose by 14 percent. It's a banner budget for state colleges.

But not for public elementary and secondary schools. They got precious little.

By law, the governor is required to give K-12 public schools more money each year under various formulas. But in the area of discretionary spending, the Glendening budget calls for just $19 million in new money for early childhood learning. And not much else.

No extra dollars -- beyond what the law calls for -- to help schools overwhelmed by special-needs students. No extra cash for rural schools in desperate straits. Little real new money for the still-struggling city school system.

And yet, local school expenses are growing so rapidly that city and county governments can't pay for it.

Take special education. Costs have soared to well over $1 billion. Some 112,000 students have special needs, a 10-year growth of 21 percent.

Yet the state's share of special-education expenses has dropped over that period, from 21 percent to just 15 percent.

The counties and Baltimore City are left scrambling for local funds to pay for these added education programs required by federal law.

The same thing has happened in bus services for special-needs kids. In 1984, Maryland paid 95 percent of those costs. Now it pays 36 percent. Meanwhile, local transportation expenses have soared 180 percent between 1981 and 1998.

To pay those bills, 10 counties raised income or property tax rates last year and five more counties substantially increased fees or other taxes.

Some counties are just about tapped out.

They've hit the limit on raising the local piggyback income tax; higher property taxes have led to tax revolts, and tax caps, in five counties.

And yet the education pressures keep building for local governments.

Mr. Glendening has been generous to one segment of the local school systems -- the teachers' union.

His teacher pay-incentive program will cost the state $85 million this coming year. But to qualify for that money, counties must put up four times that amount. A growing number of them can't afford to do that.

Efforts to give local schools the extra operating funds they badly need have fallen on deaf ears. A blue-ribbon panel formed to re-write the state's school-aid formula two years ago has been ignored by the governor. This year, it recommended a $132 million stopgap package.

The governor included not a cent of this request in his budget.

The state school board's recommendation for all-day kindergarten and other additional aid was also ignored by Mr. Glendening.

Instead, he dumped a quarter-billion-dollars of state money into local school construction. What he didn't say is that Baltimore and the counties must put up twice that amount -- $500 million -- as their share of these construction projects.

Some impoverished counties don't have the resources.

Besides, local educators' top priority is classroom improvement, not new buildings. The governor's budget barely speaks to that concern.

Allegany County schools are in extremis, for instance. A school consolidation this year didn't save nearly enough to lift the Western Maryland system out of its deficit.

The impoverished county government doesn't have the funds to turn things around. And Mr. Glendening's budget offers no relief.

Given the governor's unwillingness to confront the emerging crisis in K-12 education, counties may resort to court action.

The city was pressured by Annapolis politicians, including the governor, to abandon its lawsuit, but private groups aren't giving up.

And for good reason.

The state constitution is crystal clear that Maryland government "shall by law establish throughout the state a thorough and efficient system of free public schools." The state's not living up to that mandate.

This ought to be the top Annapolis priority, not fancy new college buildings and higher-education initiatives.

Maryland's much-vaunted K-12 school reforms aren't going to succeed if public schools can't get the full attention of this state's governor and legislature.

Barry Rascovar is deputy editorial page editor.

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