State schools plan called unfair by some, too costly

Montgomery says it deserves more

money running short

Proposal links aid, wealth

January 02, 2002|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

An ambitious plan to boost Maryland's public school funding by $1.1 billion over the next five years faces pockets of opposition from across the state, jeopardizing its prospects amid the budgetary belt-tightening likely in the coming General Assembly session.

Legislators from Montgomery County, the state's most populous jurisdiction, have staked out their opposition to the proposal and are promoting their own, even more expensive alternative.

Some education activists -- as well as the state's association of local school boards and some rural jurisdictions -- also object to portions of the plan.

And perhaps most significant, Gov. Parris N. Glendening has given no indication that he'll put money into the plan for the 2002-2003 school year, which could relegate the Thornton Commission's two-year study of school financing to a shelf full of other school studies gathering dust.

"I think it's clear that it's going to be a very difficult struggle," said Alvin Thornton, the former Prince George's County school board head who serves as chairman of the state education financing task force. "But it's one that we must fight.

"The real strength behind this report is that it lays out what is educationally appropriate, morally right and, if necessary, legally sustainable for the public schools and children of Maryland," he said.

The commission has the twin goals of reducing inequities among school systems and ensuring that all have enough money to meet state student achievement standards. In addition, it sought to simplify a welter of complex formulas governing state school aid.

Under the plan, the $2.9 billion being spent by the state on public schools this year would increase by almost 10 percent next year. About $133 million more is required under state law to pay for the increase in student enrollment; the commission seeks to add $130 million to that. The total increase would be phased in over five years.

Baltimore City and Prince George's County would receive the largest increases under the plan, and systems in Maryland's rural areas also would see large boosts in their per-pupil support from the state. Those are the jurisdictions that have the least local tax revenues and also teach larger proportions of poor children.

But some wealthier areas would receive far less extra aid -- and regional divisions are cutting into support for the report.

In Montgomery, officials believe the commission has short-changed their school system. Under the plan, the county would receive about $5 million more next year than what current law dictates, and over five years it would receive a $73.7 million increase.

Needs called unrecognized

Montgomery officials are unhappy with how the commission chose to reimburse school systems for educating immigrant children for whom English is a second language -- adjusting the amount of money based on the wealth of the jurisdiction. Montgomery, which is Maryland's wealthiest jurisdiction, educates more than half of all such pupils statewide.

"These children should not suffer because of where their parents choose to live," said Del. Jean B. Cryor, a Montgomery Republican and member of the commission. "The commission did not recognize the unique needs of Montgomery County in this area.

"People believe that Montgomery County is so wealthy and its children are wealthy, but that is not the Montgomery County of today. You can't have Montgomery County continue to give so much money to the state and have its own children get so little back," Cryor said.

Cryor and the Thornton Commission's other Montgomery legislator, Del. Sheila E. Hixson, cast the only "no" votes on the panel's report. Hixson and Cryor will likely have another chance to modify the Thornton proposal through their membership on the House Ways and Means Committee -- particularly with Hixson serving as the committee's chairwoman.

They could very well turn to a counterproposal being pushed by Montgomery officials that would significantly boost aid to Montgomery and some other systems.

The Montgomery plan would increase the Thornton Commission's state spending by $165 million, with 44 percent of that increase going to Montgomery. The Montgomery officials also are calling on the state to provide a "kindergarten capital facilities grant" of $10,000 per kindergartner to help build classrooms to provide full-day kindergarten programs -- at a cost of $562.9 million.

Funding for plan in doubt

But other influential legislators are playing down the significance of the Montgomery proposal, noting that they're going to have a difficult enough challenge finding money for the Thornton Commission's plan -- much less the more expensive Montgomery option -- in the session that begins Jan. 9.

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