Overhaul of school funding accepted

General Assembly likely to implement Thornton report

Adds $1.3 billion a year

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

The House of Delegates agreed yesterday to a major overhaul of state education financing, clearing the way for final approval of a "landmark" plan to pump an extra $1.3 billion a year into Maryland's public schools by 2007.

General Assembly passage of the Thornton Commission legislation - in doubt just two days ago - is now considered certain, and Gov. Parris N. Glendening said yesterday that he will sign it into law.

Legislative leaders, school officials and local politicians hailed the measure as a milestone in the state's efforts to assure that all children receive an adequate education by directing millions in extra aid to Maryland's poorest districts.

FOR THE RECORD - The original published version of this story about school funding incorrectly stated the frequency of votes the General Assembly must take to affirm that money is available for a landmark $1.3 billion public schools funding formula. According to the Thornton law, the legislature will vote just once, during the 2004 Assembly session.

"I think we all realize how inadequately and inequitably our current education funding formulas are," said House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. "This truly is a landmark piece of legislation."

The measure will increase Maryland's cigarette tax by 34 cents, to $1 per pack, to pay for most of the first two years of the increased aid.

Lawmakers are candid that they don't yet have the money to pay for subsequent years - and many are saying that slot machine gambling, an expanded sales tax or some other new form of revenue will be necessary.

The bill is clear that public schools won't receive the additional state funding unless the General Assembly figures out how to pay for it.

Legislative leaders were confident yesterday that they will be able to do that.

"If we can do this - and I believe we can - we will have guaranteed the children of this state the education they deserve," said Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, a Baltimore Democrat and chairman of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee.

Hoffman, who pushed the Thornton plan through the Senate, described it as "the most significant thing I have ever done in my career" of 19 years in Annapolis.

Phased in over 6 years

The plan calls for the increased funding to be phased in over six years.

By the 2007-2008 academic year, Maryland school systems would receive an average of $6,043 per pupil in state aid - almost twice the current aid of $3,493.

Baltimore would see its per-pupil support jump from $6,073 to $11,381, and state aid to Prince George's County would increase from $3,921 to $7,998 - reflecting how the revamped state formula directs more money to districts with the most poor children.

As recently as Wednesday night, House and Senate leaders had appeared deadlocked on the issue of education aid - with House leaders rejecting any plan that did not include a specific source of revenue.

They agreed yesterday to accept the measure passed by the Senate, but insisted on an amendment requiring the Assembly to approve a joint resolution each year affirming that Maryland has enough revenue for the next installment of aid.

The legislature followed such a practice in the mid-1980s when it passed a previous education aid plan - though that measure was less than half the cost of the Thornton recommendations.

"By adding this amendment, this bill meets our demands for being fiscally responsible," said Del. Howard P. Rawlings, a Baltimore Democrat and House Appropriations Committee chairman.

Just two days ago, he had called the plan "a hoax on the citizens of the state."

Under the amendment, Rawlings said, "you'll have a debate on whether you have the money for the plan. If you don't pass the resolution, then the spending stops."

The House gave preliminary approval to the proposal last night, with a final vote in that chamber scheduled for today. Senate leaders have indicated they will accept the minor changes made by the House.

The measure is based on the recommendations of the Thornton Commission, which spent two years studying Maryland's system of education financing.

Reducing inequities

It sought to reduce inequities among the 24 school systems and to ensure that all would have enough money to meet state student achievement standards.

Though decades of research have found that money alone doesn't guarantee improved student achievement, some expensive, well-planned changes - smaller classes, higher salaries to retain qualified teachers, expanded classes for 4- and 5-year-olds - have frequently produced results.

The legislation requires school systems to provide full-day kindergarten for all children by 2007-2008, as well as free pre-kindergarten for all 4-year-olds living in poverty.

There are few other restrictions on the aid, letting superintendents and school boards decide for themselves how to boost achievement - a significant departure from Maryland's past practice of restricting new money to more than 50 different categories of spending.

"This is such a profound statement of confidence and commitment to public education in Maryland," said state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick.

"This is tremendously important because we have a broken funding formula in this state."

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