Maryland must find funds for educational equality

February 28, 2002|By Christopher N. Maher

MORE THAN two years of hard work on behalf of Maryland's schoolchildren is in danger of coming undone. Money is the sticking point, leaders are at a crossroads and children's futures are hanging in the balance.

A blue-ribbon panel appointed by Gov. Parris N. Glendening - the Commission on Education Finance, Equity and Excellence, commonly known as the Thornton Commission - has given him and the state legislature a blueprint for school finance reform.

For the first time, regardless of where children live, they would get a quality education.

But there's a catch. The very high price tag of the proposal is resulting in sticker shock, particularly in a year of fiscal shortfalls. The governor's budget failed to put dollars behind the Thornton Commission's recommendations. And those who nevertheless acknowledge the need to find funds are becoming divided among themselves.

The Thornton Commission's recommendations weren't picked from a hat. Nationally known experts looked at successful schools in Maryland and analyzed how they spend their money.

These experts found that low-income students, special education students, and students with limited proficiency in English need additional services to achieve state standards.

To help every child succeed, the commission has proposed extra money for all students in Maryland, particularly these at-risk populations.

The commission's two-year study of Maryland's school financing focused on reducing inequities among its 24 public school systems to ensure all have enough money to meet state student achievement standards. It recommended that the $2.9 billion the state is spending on public schools this year increase nearly 10 percent next year.

The total $1.1 billion annual increase in state spending would be phased in over five years. More local spending also would be required.

The commission's work is done, and bills implementing its prescriptions have been introduced in both houses of the legislature. The voters have spoken, giving the Thornton Commission overwhelming support in two recent state polls. Ninety-two percent of Marylanders say they support the Thornton Commission, and 52 percent of Marylanders even would be willing to have their taxes increased to fund its recommendations.

Meanwhile, the legislature's own analysts have recommended reductions in state funds of more than $140 million from agencies that do not directly serve children. That's enough to fully fund the first year of the Thornton Commission formula.

An investment in education now will be much less costly to the state than the repercussions down the road (i.e., lawsuits or a poorly educated work force) if no additional money is found for children.

Christopher N. Maher is the education director for the Baltimore-based Advocates for Children and Youth.

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