The public trust falls prey to politics

School funding: Governor's nod to private schools is preserved by Senate lawmakers.

March 11, 2002

WARNING: You'll find no acts of political courage cited in this editorial.

Not from Gov. Parris N. Glendening, who couldn't bring himself to craft a state budget without his annual multimillion-dollar set-aside for private and parochial schools -- even though there's no money this year for public essentials.

And not from the legislature, which so far has been no more heroic on this issue. Rather than excising the governor's gift to private schools, a Senate committee last week took a hatchet to the state Department of Education's budget to help pay for it.

They've cut more than $10 million from dropout-prevention programs, professional development for teachers, class-size reduction efforts and important educational aid to institutions such as the National Aquarium, the Maryland Science Center and the Baltimore Zoo.

But they've preserved $4 million for private school aid -- just a million less than the governor requested. Is there no one in Annapolis who sees that as a bizarre imbalance? Is there no public servant in Maryland willing to suppress political instinct in favor of common sense?

Public schools are hurting all over Maryland, pinching and scraping to provide books for their children, keep up their buildings and hire enough qualified teachers. The Thornton Commission also points out -- correctly -- that Maryland has been grossly derelict in meeting its obligation to provide a free and adequate public education for all students. The commission says an additional $1 billion will be needed to create and sustain sufficient funding levels in every school district; so far, neither the governor nor the legislature has committed a dime to that aim.

Deep cuts in public education programs are a step backward in that context, an example of state negligence that defies rational justification. Paired with the continued diversion of state money for nonpublic purposes, those cuts are even harder to fathom.

State Department of Education officials point out that the reductions would have noticeable effects throughout the state.

The class-size reduction program (which lost $3 million in funding) is an "absolutely critical" tool for the improvement of public schools, they say. The program will be frozen at last year's funding level, preventing the hiring of additional teachers to further reduce class sizes.

The aid to the aquarium, science center and zoo is also an important part of public education, officials say. The money those institutions get from the Department of Education pays for instructional programs for public school children. (It's also used by those institutions to leverage private dollars that help keep them solvent.)

Without the money, the institutions may have to scale back or eliminate programs -- many of which the Department of Education requires the institutions to provide for economically disadvantaged children who sometimes don't have access to quality science programs in their own schools.

The loss of professional development money could also be felt deeply throughout the state. Legislators approved this cut despite a specific citation in the Thornton Commission's report that highlighted Maryland's stunning deficiencies in this area.

State education officials say new federal funding might offset the state reduction, but that's not certain. If it doesn't, some districts will not even be able to keep pace with their current professional development efforts.

It's not too late to unscramble these lopsided priorities. The Senate committee that made the cuts will meet again. The full Senate must consider the budget, and the House of Delegates will also get a say.

But if no one stands to correct these decisions, and public school children enter a diminished system next fall, their parents (the voters) should remember who it was that failed to set things right.

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