Officials weigh Thornton rollback

But delaying schools plan now tied to federal law may prove impractical

October 28, 2003|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

From the governor's mansion to the halls of the legislature, talk is growing that a $1.3 billion public school improvement program must be altered because Marylanders won't swallow new taxes to pay for it and the budget is busted.

But a careful look at the Bridge to Excellence in Public Schools plan - such as the day-long examination that legislative budget committees undertook last week - reveals important reasons why a delay may be impractical or even impossible, some lawmakers and education advocates say.

Not only does a sweeping federal law passed nearly two years ago and called "No Child Left Behind" require similar education improvements to those urged by the Thornton Commission, but lawsuits would almost certainly be launched if the schools program were changed.

Additionally, districts throughout the state are creating plans to show how they will spend the money, raising expectations that their communities will receive more teachers, smaller classes and better instruction for at-risk children.

"I don't think Thornton can be rolled back, because it covers much of the mandates of the No Child Left Behind Act," said House Speaker Michael E. Busch. "And it's the general belief and expectation of most Marylanders that it is going to be funded, because every elected official, including the governor, said they intended to fully fund Thornton."

The question of how to pay for the education plan - approved last year to bring equity and quality to classrooms but without a funding source behind it - will dominate the General Assembly session that begins in January.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. says his next budget will include the third of six installments for the program, about $388 million, without relying on slot machine proceeds or new taxes.

But after that, the governor says, there are no guarantees. Ehrlich wants a slots-at-racetracks bill passed to cover the expenses, but top Democratic lawmakers note that a slots program would take about two years to set up and would cover a little more than half the costs of the education plan.

Democrats passed the program to much fanfare even as Republicans grumbled about whether the state could afford it. But polls showed its popularity, and Ehrlich ran on a platform of meeting its mandates.

The governor has begun discussions with top lawmakers on whether the Thornton requirements can be spread over more years, lowering the annual cost.

"We inherited that debate," Ehrlich said yesterday. "We've listened to a variety of opinions, from `Leave it alone' to `Come on, just look at the numbers.' We haven't made any decision."

Although the idea of extending the plan has growing appeal, last week's hearing raised several red flags.

The requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind Act are in some cases more stringent than Maryland's plan, education experts say.

The federal law requires improvements for subgroups of students such as those with disabilities or limited English skills whose performance has been masked behind schoolwide averages. Qualified teachers are required in all schools, and 100 percent of students must master their subject areas by 2014.

"You can say that No Child Left Behind upped the ante on Thornton," said Rachel Hise, a legislative analyst for the House Appropriations Committee.

Chris Maher, an education specialist with Advocates for Children and Youth of Maryland, called the federal law "a beast" that would be unleashed if the state program is delayed.

`Loss of local control'

"It could mean the loss of local control over schools, or the loss of federal funds for the state of Maryland," Maher said. "By altering Thornton, you are talking about undermining No Child Left Behind. ... It's dangerous to talk about extending the implementation of Thornton."

The Thornton legislation was born of a study that looked at what Maryland needs to do to meet its requirements under the state constitution of providing an adequate public education for all students.

Consultants concluded that, on average, school districts needed to spend $9,408 per pupil to provide an adequate education, with some districts, notably Baltimore, coming in much higher, at $12,458.

But local jurisdictions varied greatly in their ability to raise money to meet that goal. Baltimore had an unmet need of $10,159 per pupil, the consultants said, while Talbot County had only a $454 gap.

Putting specific numbers behind a wealth-stabilization plan, and passing a law that requires higher spending, has created much of the evidence needed for interest groups to sue Maryland on grounds that the state is failing its duties, many observers say.

"If one of these counties goes to court, we've almost made the case," said Sen. Ulysses Currie, chairman of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee. "It's easy to prove we are not providing adequate funding for education."

Baltimore suit in works

Baltimore parents are engaged in such a lawsuit, and a judge found that city schools are not providing an adequate education.

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