Money for some? Or money for all?

A political challenge: Legislators must find a fair way to increase and balance spending on education.

January 05, 2002

MARYLAND IS a very wealthy state - but it doesn't act like one when it comes to public education.

Years into its effort to catch up in school funding, state government must spend at least $1.1 billion to bring its support into line with national norms, according to analyses done for the Thornton Commission on education funding.

That money would allow the state to begin "equalizing" what is spent for education in the richest and poorest schools. It would allow some districts to reduce class sizes, offer full-day kindergarten and more summer school and expand preschool programs for children who live in poverty.

It's a straightforward proposal, and a sensible one. This is a state where schools in one of the largest jurisdictions - Baltimore City - receive only slightly more than two-thirds of what schools in the wealthiest areas get.

It's a state in which conditions in some rural school districts reflect a Deep South poverty not often equated with Maryland money.

It is long past time for this state to address financial inequity in schools with the same vigor it summoned to whip curricula and school accountability into shape.

But the Thornton redistribution proposal faces enormous hurdles: Maryland must solve difficult, recession-generated financial problems, and, as usual, various jurisdictions are unhappy with the commission's proposals for distributing new money.

The groaning began even before the report was completed. Montgomery County, the state's wealthiest jurisdiction, led the chorus of dissent by pointing out that it sends more to Annapolis in taxes than it gets back in aid.

It's up to the state legislature to mediate between Montgomery and those at the other end of the economic ladder to find the best and most politically palatable approach to allocating new state aid.

No, Montgomery should not be taken for a ride in the new system, but its leaders also must recognize that the state's goal is to promote the greater good and distribute money where it's most needed. Here's a constitutional reminder: This state owes every child an equal and adequate education - not just those who can afford it.

The Thornton distributions face other potential problems in the office of Gov. Parris N. Glendening, who appointed the commission that now makes these recommendations but may still decide not to fund them.

He already has to come up with $133 million just to cover increased enrollment around the state. The Thornton Commission's recommendation would add $130 million to that sum.

Nevertheless, some Montgomery legislators have actually proposed adding $35 million to Thornton's $130 million; about 44 percent of that increase would be earmarked for Montgomery. Though exacerbating the financial problem, the idea will get some consideration.

It is, no doubt, just the first of many efforts to balance Thornton politically. Nothing wrong with that at all. Compromise has always worked in the past.

Working this through in the legislature is far better than having the courts intervene - which could definitely happen if the governor and assembly don't do their jobs.

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