Shortchanging schools

April 07, 2006

As if the Maryland State Department of Education's attempted takeover of 11 Baltimore schools were not politically complicated enough, the U.S. Department of Education is threatening to withhold some federal funds if the General Assembly prevails in imposing a one-year moratorium on the state's plan. It's an overreaction that can only hurt some of the state's poorest students.

It would certainly harm students in Baltimore, who are already caught in the turmoil of the state's proposed actions - and who have long been shortchanged by the state when it comes to financial resources. In threatening to veto the takeover delay, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has insisted that Baltimore's schoolchildren have not received their constitutional rights to an adequate education - and he's right. But the constitutional outrage is that the city is not receiving its fair share of state school aid.

If Mr. Ehrlich wants students' constitutional rights to be respected, he could begin by advocating that the state meet its outstanding obligation of at least $400 million to the city. He could also try to persuade the federal government not to add insult to injury by using $171 million that's designated for students from low-income families as a club to prevent the General Assembly from postponing the most far-reaching aspects of the state's plan that would not have gone into effect for nearly 18 months anyway.

Baltimore schools receive about 67 percent of their finances from the state, about 14 percent from the federal government and 19 percent from the city. Thanks to the Thornton Commission, state money is being increased over six years by more than $1 billion in an effort to provide more educational equity to students throughout the state, particularly those from low-income families, in special-education classes or with limited proficiency in English. Although the additional money is welcome, it can't entirely make up for previous funding shortfalls.

In a still-pending lawsuit, Baltimore Circuit Judge Joseph H. H. Kaplan ruled back in 2000 that the city school system deserved roughly an additional $2,500 per student from the state to satisfy the constitutional mandate of an adequate education for all students. He has since said that the state underfunded city schools by $400 million to $800 million. But he has not issued a judgment that the state's highest court has considered final and, therefore, either binding or not.

However, the Thornton Commission determined in 2002 that city schools were getting about $3,100 less per pupil than they needed in order to be considered adequately funded. Although more dollars under Thornton have cut the shortfall almost in half, Baltimore schools this year are still getting $1,600 less per pupil - about $136 million this year - than they need because full funding under Thornton is not likely to occur until 2008.

More money certainly won't cure all the ills that plague the city school system, and it is hardly off the hook to show some improvement in student performance. But a big part of what makes the state's posture so galling is the focus on such a drastic remedy as taking over schools when it hasn't provided all of the basic resources. And big-foot tactics by the feds only make a frustratingly unfair situation even more so.

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