City offers lesson on improvements

Education: As the Assembly considers boosting state spending, it can look to Baltimore's successes.

Schools and Money

March 05, 2002|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

Don't tell Barbara George that money can't improve public schools.

Six years ago, the first-grade teacher at Arlington Elementary School in Northwest Baltimore had 32 pupils in her class. Today, she's got just 19 and she can see the difference: They're learning, and the school's test scores are going up.

"I'm able to do so much more for the children," George says. "There's more one-to-one, more time to make sure every child is learning."

As the General Assembly officially opens debate tomorrow on a proposal to boost state spending on public education by $1.1 billion over the next five years, the recent successes of Baltimore's elementary schools will be held up as proof that more money can make a difference.

Maryland has poured hundreds of millions of extra dollars into the city schools over the past five years, much of it the result of a landmark partnership in which Baltimore traded some control over the system for more state aid.

Since then, improvement has been steady. Though the city's average still ranks at the bottom of Maryland's 24 school systems, the district has posted higher scores on state exams every year. For the first time in at least a decade, Baltimore first-graders exceeded the national averages on standardized reading and math exams - providing hope to a city desperately in need of better schools.

"The last five years have proven that all children can learn, even in Baltimore," says Patricia L. Welch, the school board's chairwoman.

Now, Baltimore and other school systems are pressing the Assembly and Gov. Parris N. Glendening for more help. They say Maryland must meet its constitutional responsibility to provide an adequate education for all children - and they say an analysis by the Thornton Commission shows exactly how many more dollars are needed.

The commission spent the past two years seeking ways to reduce inequities among Maryland's school systems and to ensure that all have enough money to meet state achievement goals. It recommended adding $140 million next year to the $2.9 billion now being spent by the state on public schools and providing about $950 million more over next four years - plus requiring greater local spending.

Right now, Glendening's budget does not include any money earmarked for the Thornton recommendations - something many lawmakers are trying to change, perhaps by increasing Maryland's cigarette tax.

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. Tomorrow afternoon, a Senate committee will hold the first hearing on legislation to turn the Thornton recommendations into law. Prospects are very uncertain.

Under the commission's plan, less affluent jurisdictions with many poor children, urban and rural, would receive large amounts of extra state money. Those with more wealth would receive less, prompting Montgomery County - the state's largest jurisdiction - to threaten to block the commission's work in the Assembly unless that plan is changed.

Although 85 percent of Baltimore's elementary school pupils qualify for free lunches and the city educates one-third of all Maryland children living in poverty, the system would not be the biggest beneficiary. That distinction belongs to Prince George's County, which would see a $306 million boost in state dollars after five years.

Nevertheless, the 96,000- student city system would still see a huge increase in state aid. Next year, the Thornton plan calls for the city to receive an extra $37 million from the state, and by the end of five years Baltimore would receive a cumulative increase of $274 million.

That money would come on top of the five-year, $254 million boost negotiated in 1997 as part of the settlement to several lawsuits.

That hard-fought agreement forced Baltimore to turn over some control of its school system to the state, giving the governor and state superintendent more say in selecting the city school board.

By all accounts, the city-state partnership has given hope to a system that had been failing. Just last week, several private foundations committed $20 million to help fix the city's high schools. "That says a lot, that even the private sector is believing in the rejuvenation of the city schools," says Christopher N. Maher, education director of the nonprofit Advocates for Children and Youth.

The state funds enabled the city to cut class sizes in early grades to about 20 pupils. Starting teacher salaries were increased by about 40 percent. New reading and math programs - including bringing phonics back into first and second grades - were installed across the city. "Not only has this been an unqualified success, it's seen as a national model for this country," says state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick.

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