All mixed up on schools

Priorities: Governor's plan to help private schools can't overshadow public school needs.

March 01, 2002

THE EXAMPLES come quickly to Sally Grant's mind, and when she relates them, a palpable anger lurks just beneath her words.

Teachers at one Caroline County elementary have to paint the school walls themselves. There's no money to hire professionals. At an Allegany County high school, some children are left to learn history from books printed in 1960. There's no money to buy more recent texts. And in Baltimore City, where 98,000 children attend more than 150 schools, there are only 20 librarians. There isn't cash to hire more.

All over Maryland, Ms. Grant points out, public schools make do or go without because they don't get what they need from state funding. And this would only make it worse: Gov. Parris N. Glendening's education budget for next fiscal year includes $5 million that would go to private schools to help buy textbooks.

"That just doesn't make sense," says Ms. Grant, who heads a lobby group aptly named Public $$$ for Public Schools.

She's right, and when the Senate Subcommittee on Education considers the governor's budget today in Annapolis, it ought to find a more appropriate -- and public -- use for that money. A budget is about priorities, and the legislature will have to help the governor get his straight on this issue.

This isn't the first time the governor has insisted on diverting public funds to private schools.

In his past two budgets, he has included money for private school textbooks, arguing that the state's obligation to educate extends beyond the walls of public schools to include needy children in any classroom.

Nothing wrong with that goal or the thinking behind it. But the state's first obligation is to its own children, the ones who attend public schools and couldn't dream of a private education. As long as their needs go unmet, it's near insulting for the governor or the legislature to consider diverting public money to other kids.

In years past, it's arguable that the state's huge surpluses could be used to justify the allocations to private schools. But no such rationalization is available now. The budget is airtight this year, and many worthy public programs will go wanting.

In particular, the Thornton Commission's recommendation that an extra $1.1 billion be spent to help equalize public school funding across districts could end up unfunded. And the list of have-nots at the top of this editorial could have gone on for a full page.

Administration officials have pointed out in the past that the money for private school textbooks is carved from the state's tobacco settlement, which is restricted in its use, and therefore could not simply be reallocated for public schools. But that's a shell game. The $5 million could certainly be used to displace other money in the overall budget, which could then be diverted to public schools. This is a matter of political will -- not practical possibility.

The governor could not summon that will on his own; legislators will have to do it for him.

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