State must fund education equity

April 04, 2002|By Bebe Verdery

AS THIS year's legislative session comes to a close, the state stands at a crossroads. We have before us clear choices that will determine the future of public school education in Maryland -- and thus the future of our state -- for decades to come.

One road leads to the adoption of a sensible, comprehensive state funding formula based on children's needs, the other to delay and perennial legislative debates about patchwork add-on education programs.

The enlightened path leads toward children across the state achieving at levels many thought impossible. The well-worn path of the status quo ends in children in less wealthy jurisdictions failing to meet state standards and a renewal of litigation on their behalf.

At the behest of the governor and legislature, the Thornton Commission on education funding worked hard for more than two years to arrive at a comprehensive and rational funding formula that gives substantial increases to all counties and can immeasurably improve the education and lives of children.

The commission's work and the studies that led to it are not only the blueprint for legislative reform, they are a firm basis for a constitutional claim in the courts. Baltimore City already has a final order, enforceable by court action, declaring that the education being provided its children is unconstitutional and that additional funds are required.

The price tag for statewide education funding reform is large -- $1.1 billion. But with a five year phase-in, it can be done. Polls show that Maryland citizens support increased funding for education, even if it means delaying tax refunds or increasing taxes.

For the executive branch and the legislature, there are inevitably tough decisions to be made among competing interests. There always are. But even when the state had nearly a $1 billion surplus three years ago, K-12 education was not considered a priority.

Perhaps it remains unclear to some that the obligation to educate the state's children trumps all other interests. That's because the drafters of the Maryland Constitution singled out education as a governmental duty so fundamental and so paramount that it was worth enshrining in the state's constitution. And they were right. One is hard pressed to think of a right that is more clearly a bedrock right. Indeed, the general public welfare hinges on an educated citizenry.

Maryland is one of a growing number of states whose courts have said that the states have an affirmative duty to provide whatever is necessary to ensure that children receive an adequate education.

The New Jersey Supreme Court set forth a comprehensive system of reforms and programs that it ordered the state to carry out and fund. Texas courts likewise told the state it could not disburse education funds until the legislature and executive took steps to fund a constitutional education. Courts in numerous other states, among them New York, have trusted the legislature and executive to act but made clear that the judiciary can take action if they don't.

Litigation is unfortunately a blunt instrument to use in forcing a legislature to live up to its obligations. It is far better for legislative branches to fashion the kinds of remedies that are peculiarly within their province rather than relinquishing their prerogative to the courts.

Litigation can be avoided here if the Maryland executive branch and legislature are willing to do what the state's citizens, courts and constitutional drafters all agree must be done -- put the state's children above election-year politics and provincial interests.

It's up to the legislature to have the courage and foresight to adopt the Thornton Commission's recommendations and to fund them, beginning this year. If not this year, when?

Must Maryland follow other states' examples and find itself embroiled in more litigation from Baltimore City and from additional jurisdictions? Or can we muster the political courage to make the right choice now and set K-12 education as the state's top funding priority? The General Assembly has the opportunity now to do what is right and to do what is constitutional.

The constitution demands it, and the children deserve it.

Bebe Verdery is director of the ACLU of Maryland's Education Reform Project.

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