Paying up

August 22, 2004

THERE OUGHT to be better places than a courtroom to devise educational policy; nevertheless, it was heartening to see how Judge Joseph H.H. Kaplan, in his ruling Friday on the Baltimore school system, struck so clearly to the heart of the issue. The city's schools still don't have the money they should be getting under the state constitution, he wrote, and in the effort to make ends meet, the quality of the academic program is deteriorating. This is the wrong way to be heading, he said, and it must stop.

Judge Kaplan has been riding herd on the city schools since 1996, when he found that the system was denied the funds it needed to provide a constitutionally acceptable education -- a finding he reinforced in 2000. His orders led to the Thornton Commission, and the decision by the General Assembly to increase state spending on education by hundreds of millions of dollars. And yet, he pointed out Friday, under current plans the city schools would not achieve legally sufficient financing until 2008, if then.

The lack of money all these years, especially recently, helped stoke the $58 million deficit and last spring's cash-flow crisis, he suggested. He ruled that efforts now under way to pay down the deficit in two years are doing too much damage to the schools' educational mission, and must be spread out over a longer period.

He pointed out that the state has shortchanged the city by between $400 million and $800 million since his 2000 order, and is still running behind by about $255 million a year. He strongly suggested that Annapolis should accelerate its march toward full Thornton funding.

In the short term, he ordered the city and the state to come up with $30 to $45 million this year so that the system can restore a full summer school, avoid increases in class size, and increase the number of mentors, academic coaches and guidance counselors back to the levels of last year. Much of this could be accomplished through the suspension of the deficit reduction plan.

Judges, in general, should not be in the business of telling state governments how to spend money. But Judge Kaplan's order is so sensible, for a system that has been so ill-served, that it is difficult to quibble. A stringent plan to achieve fiscal stability is fine, he said, but not if it undermines the academic mission of an already hard-hit school system.

He ruled, properly in our view, that a reorganization suggested by the state is not needed, because the current leadership is demonstrating its ability to manage the system. He slapped City Hall on the wrist and said that, while it should monitor school finances, it should stay out of decisions affecting the academic program, which properly belong to the school board. In an ideal world, we would agree. But the school board, frankly, must show that it can rise to the task at hand.

The state and the city have four weeks to come up with the means to meet Judge Kaplan's order. Delay would be in no one's interest. Over the longer term, we agree wholeheartedly with the judge's message to Annapolis: Thornton now.

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