Prince George's pins hopes on new funds

Spending: Residents love to imagine what their schools could do with the financial boost recommended by the Thornton Commission.

January 23, 2002|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

FOREST HEIGHTS - No school system would receive as much from the Thornton Commission's education spending plan as Prince George's County, and residents of America's wealthiest majority-black county believe the state money is long overdue.

"The books in the library are too old, the building is crumbling, there's never enough money for everything we need to do," says Linda Brown, parent of a fifth-grader and president of the Forest Heights Elementary PTA. "It's our turn to get some help. We need it."

During the next five years, Prince George's would gain $306 million under the $1.1 billion education finance plan recently proposed by the state commission - a long-sought boost for a system that spends almost $3,000 less per child than the next-door suburban jurisdiction, Montgomery County.

The fate of that spending plan is perhaps the most significant issue facing the General Assembly during the 2002 session, affecting a tight state budget, school budgets in all 24 jurisdictions and the future of Maryland's education improvement efforts.

"If there isn't money for this plan, Maryland cannot continue with its reform efforts," warns Alvin Thornton, the former Prince George's school board chairman who headed the commission. "How can you continue to hold schools accountable for high standards if you have made the decision not to give them the money and resources they need to reach them?"

Two years in the making, the Thornton Commission's recommendations sought to reduce inequities among Maryland's school systems and ensure that all have enough money to meet state student achievement standards.

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. The total $1.1 billion increase would be phased in over five years, and it also would require greater local spending.

Though Gov. Parris N. Glendening proposes adding $161 million to state spending on kindergarten through 12th grade next year, none of that money is earmarked for the Thornton Commission's recommendations.

A legislative `thumbprint'

Still, legislative leaders and education activists vow to fight for more money before the end of the 90-day session - enough to leave "at least a thumbprint" on the Thornton plan, says Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller.

Even if no additional funds are forthcoming, the new statewide school financing formula proposed by the commission will be the subject of serious legislative debate in anticipation of education spending next year.

Pressure to approve either new money or a new financing plan is intensified because the Thornton Commission found Maryland isn't meeting its constitutional obligations for public education - providing ammunition for potential lawsuits threatened by poorer jurisdictions.

The commission's recommendations play out differently in different corners of the state. Though decades of academic research have found that money alone doesn't guarantee improved student achievement, some expensive, well-planned changes - smaller class sizes, higher salaries to retain qualified teachers, expanded classes for 4- and 5-year-olds - have frequently produced results.

Schools in Baltimore - which have received large boosts in state aid during the past five years - would continue to be among the biggest winners, as the commission sought to give extra resources to children who live in poverty and have extra needs. Systems in Maryland's rural areas also would see large increases in their per-pupil support from the state.

By contrast, wealthier areas would receive far less extra aid - prompting particularly loud objections in Montgomery County, where residents believe they're being shortchanged in funding efforts to educate a relatively large number of immigrant children who don't speak English.

`It would be phenomenal'

Here in Prince George's, eyes widen in astonishment among teachers, principals and parents when they speculate what could happen if their school system were to spend as much money as nearby Montgomery.

"It would be phenomenal," says Howard Wright, principal of Forest Heights. Though his elementary is among the highest-scoring in the county, he can quickly rattle off additional needs. "We wouldn't have teachers and others leaving for higher salaries," Wright says. "We could afford to do everything we need to do for our children."

Superintendent Iris T. Metts says about 4,000 county children are eligible for Head Start pre-school programs, but there's enough money for only 800 to be enrolled. With almost 134,000 pupils, Prince George's is the second-largest district in Maryland and 19th-largest in the nation.

This school year, budgets got so tight in Prince George's that the system began enforcing a long-ignored policy requiring elementary pupils who live within 1 mile to 1 1/2 miles to walk to school. At Forest Heights - along the southeast border with Washington, D.C. - that meant dozens of children crossing busy, six-lane Route 210.

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