Rich funding can't pay costs of poor planning

January 17, 2004|By GREGORY KANE

THEY CAME Monday night to plead at the War Memorial Plaza building.

Bonnie S. Copeland, the new chief executive of Baltimore's school system, was there. Her chief academic officer, Cassandra Jones, was in attendance. Melvin L. Stukes, the city councilman from the 6th District who also chairs the education committee for "Believe" city's legislature, gave his support.

Other politicos were there: City Councilmen Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr. and Kenneth N. Harris Sr., Del. Nathaniel T. Oaks and state Sen. Verna L. Jones. Del. Marshall T. Goodwin, the man who replaced the late Howard "Pete" Rawlings (Is "replaced" the right word? Can Rawlings really be replaced?), was there, too, as were several members of the school board, who bravely appeared in public without bags over their heads.

They had all come to urge folks to be in Annapolis on Jan. 26, the better to demand that state legislators and Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. fund what they all no doubt feel is the Rosetta stone of public education: the Thornton initiative, passed in 2002.

What Thornton requires is an extra $1.3 billion to be given to Maryland's public schools over the next five years. The poorer school districts, in an effort to create "equity" in funding, would get the lion's share of the money. The thinking here is that equal funding will mean equal results. It's a notion almost puerile in its quaintness.

Copeland said that funding Thornton this year would mean an extra $67 million for city schools.

"Just think," she told the approximately 500 in attendance, "of what that would mean for the city."

Well, let me see. If I do the math correctly, that would mean a school system already $58 million in the hole because of mismanagement would have a net gain of only $9 million.

Speaking of doing the math, it's not surprising that during this woe-is-us session no one brought up how city students fared on the recently released high school assessment test scores for 2003. Just over 20 percent of Baltimore's students passed the algebra exam. Less than 20 percent passed the English test. Fewer than one in three passed biology. The best results were in government, with over 40 percent passing. That may be significant because even Baltimore students can see what's wrong with this Thornton proposal.

They probably know enough government - and have enough common sense - to realize you can't pass a $1.3 billion funding proposal if you don't have money to fund it. That very pertinent information didn't get mentioned at the War Memorial Plaza building, either. Only one person made a salient comment.

That was Mitchell, who said he supported Thornton but added a caveat.

"I've come to a point," Mitchell said, "where it's not just about money. We have to look at other options when it comes to educating our children." Mitchell said he was considering doing what former Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke has done: support some type of school voucher program for the city.

His comment went over like a crazed pit bull at a cat show, but at least Mitchell is thinking outside the box. He knows that what happens in schools is not about $$$$$$$$. It's about $tupidity. It's about how money is used once you get fully funded.

The place with one of the highest per-pupil expenditures in the nation - the District of Columbia - is consistently on the lower end of performance, according to the American Legislative Exchange Council, a nonpartisan group of state legislators that generally favors conservative views.

Our own state legislators who voted for Thornton knew that before they voted, just as they knew the funding didn't exist. $tupid, no?

What happens in the school systems when they do get fully funded? Do they make good decisions or poor ones? In Baltimore, we already know the $58 million answer to that question.

For instance, will administrators stop requiring, as a group of math teachers at City College have charged, that math teachers also teach reading? How $tupid is this? Students come to City College knowing how to read. It's kind of a requirement for getting into the school. Having math teachers at City College - or Polytechnic Institute or Western High School - teach reading is a waste of time and $$$$$$$. It's $tupid.

And fully funded $tupidity, once you cut through all the pleading and the moaning and the bat guano, is still just plain, old-fashioned, down-home $tupidity.

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