Funding for diversity

Education: Montgomery County officials vow to fight for a larger increase in state aid than a panel recently suggested, saying their large population of immigrant pupils requires extra resources.

February 10, 2002|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

GAITHERSBURG - The new faces of Montgomery County can be found in Joanne Bliven's classroom.

There's Vy Ly from Vietnam and Ka Hin Cheun from China, and Blanca Linqui and Blenny Morejon from El Salvador. Jose Quintanilla is from California but his native language is Spanish. And sitting upright and attentive - but understanding only a few words of English - is Bruna Schneider, who arrived just three days earlier from Brazil.

"Every day, at least 45 minutes per class, I'm working with these children, helping them learn English," says Bliven, who teaches English as a second language. "These are the children who need the extra attention."

These are the new children of Montgomery, attending schools such as Gaithersburg Elementary - where pupils come from 53 countries and speak 13 languages. Since the mid-1980s, Montgomery's white enrollment has been virtually unchanged, while its population of black, Asian and Hispanic pupils has grown by 40,000.

And these children are why educators and lawmakers from Maryland's most populous jurisdiction are trying to modify a state task force's efforts to boost annual spending on schools by $1.1 billion within five years. County officials are stumping for a more expensive alternative that would benefit Montgomery, threatening to use their legislative might to scuttle the process.

"If we don't do something that's fair for Montgomery County, then I don't think we should do anything at all," says Democratic Del. Sheila E. Hixson, chairwoman of the House Ways and Means Committee and a member of the Thornton Commission.

The Thornton Commission - named for its head, former Prince George's school board Chairman Alvin Thornton - spent the past two years seeking ways to reduce inequities among Maryland's school systems and ensure that all have enough money to meet state student achievement standards.

Under the group's recommendations, the $2.9 billion spent by the state on public schools this year would increase by almost 10 percent next year. The rest of the $1.1 billion boost would be phased in over the remaining four years and require greater local spending.

Though Gov. Parris N. Glendening's budget proposes an additional $161 million for kindergarten through 12th grade next year, none of that money is earmarked for the Thornton recommendations - something many lawmakers are trying to change by finding more money.

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

Under the commission's recommendations, less affluent jurisdictions that teach large numbers of poor children - Baltimore, Prince George's County and some rural systems - would receive large amounts of extra state money. But systems such as Montgomery, which has the third-highest wealth per pupil in Maryland, would see far less.

Montgomery spends more per pupil than any other system in the state, including $8,000 in local funds per pupil this year - vs. the state average of about $4,750 per pupil.

In addition, Montgomery spends another $2,000 in state education aid per pupil, but that is third-least in the state. Average state aid is $3,481 per pupil.

Although Montgomery has the state's largest enrollment of about 137,000 pupils, it would receive only $5 million more in state aid next year under the commission's proposal.

During the final year of the plan, Montgomery would receive $73.7 million of the extra $1.1 billion handed out that year. Because of the district's size, though, that is the state's second-lowest increase per pupil - more than only Worcester County.

By contrast, Prince George's - almost the same size as Montgomery - would receive about $306 million in new state aid under the commission's plan that year. Prince George's spends far less local funds than Montgomery and is limited by a voter-imposed tax limit.

"I'm not questioning the fact that other jurisdictions need more money, and I'm not saying anyone else needs less," says state Sen. Ida G. Ruben, a Montgomery Democrat and chairwoman of its Senate delegation. "But what the Thornton Commission did was a direct slap at Montgomery County."

Within two weeks of the commission's recommendations, Montgomery officials offered an alternative to raise the $1.1 billion boost to almost $1.3 billion. Most systems would receive at least a little more money under the alternative, but none would benefit more than Montgomery, which would see its aid package almost double.

The county also is proposing that the state spend almost $563 million statewide - about $10,000 per kindergartner - to allow all 24 systems to increase classroom space enough for full-day kindergarten. This would be beyond the $1.1 billion Thornton recommendation.

Legislators and educators from Maryland's 23 other systems have largely given Montgomery's plans the cold shoulder.

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