Unfunded mandates

May 19, 2006

Almost lost in the din of the now-postponed state takeover of 11 Baltimore schools were a number of "corrective actions" that the State Department of Education is requiring of city school administrators in order to improve schools. But at a court hearing this week, Baltimore Circuit Judge Joseph H. H. Kaplan, as well as some city students, posed legitimate questions about how a system that is still financially challenged is supposed to pay for them.

State education officials have directed the city school system to hire two specialists to help turn around low-performing schools and an independent evaluator to make sure its master plan is being followed. Among other mandates, the most costly involve developing support plans for all high school students who have failed or are at risk of failing assessment tests that are now required for graduation, and case management plans for all students who are prone to violence or chronic misbehavior.

While state education officials offered specific timelines for meeting each mandate, they didn't offer any financial help, saying that they are not responsible for the Baltimore schools' budget. While the city school system has gotten an influx of Thornton plan money and has recently retired its seven-year deficit, it can hardly absorb the extra $30 million to $40 million that one of its lawyers estimates the new requirements will cost.

At this week's hearing, Judge Kaplan suggested that the state was being "irresponsible" in ordering the city to take corrective actions without a clue about costs, and he ordered state and city officials to come up with more exact price tags for the requirements. Given that he has said - rightly, in our judgment - that the state has shortchanged city schools by $400 million to $800 million since 2000, state officials should start paying up before piling on more mandates.

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