No backing down

January 14, 2004

WITH THEIR VOTE to increase Maryland's investment in public education, lawmakers in 2002 recognized that inadequate schools make a weak foundation on which to stake the future of a wealthy state.

They had the right idea, despite not knowing where they'd find the money to deliver on their six-year commitment to give urban, rural and struggling schools resources more closely resembling those of better-off peers in the suburbs.

It's been acknowledged countless times that their good intentions were poorly executed, without guaranteed funding in the out years. But the right thing to do hasn't changed. If anything, changes in federal education law requiring increased accountability and yearly academic progress heighten the demand for the type of school improvement that state money can buy: smaller class sizes, all-day kindergarten, preschool for the poorest children, better-trained teachers, enrichment programs.

Thus, the legislative session opening today is no time to balk at meeting the state's commitment to its schools. As the bill comes due for the largest installment yet in the six-year plan - about $353 million - Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. must fulfill his campaign pledge to deliver the full Thornton aid to waiting schools.

The definition of "full" should not be negotiable here at the dawn of the session. Yet efforts to chip away at the package's many provisions are inevitable, given the $700 million gap that must be closed to meet the state's balanced budget requirement. These will prove to be pound foolish trims if, in the end, they undermine the law's fundamental goal of redirecting state school spending to ensure that the neediest schools receive greater help meeting the state's rising expectations and standards.

This week's announcement that Mr. Ehrlich might ignore a geographic formula devised to direct aid to districts where teacher retention costs are high is but one example. Though its development helped seal a compromise ensuring Montgomery County's support for the Thornton act, his administration does not see it as part of the spending mandate.

If rolling back its benefit on a technicality starts the unraveling of the whole package, it would potentially hurt the poorer as well as the wealthier schools.

Polls repeatedly confirm that a majority of voters are willing to pay more to help Maryland meet its constitutional obligation to provide equal and adequate education for its children. The combination of belt-tightening and revenue-raising needed - an overhaul of the state's budget to match new priorities - indeed will be painful medicine, and a test of leadership. But backing down from the commitment now could only be seen as a betrayal.

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