Local schools used state aid to raise salaries

Study finds half of funds aimed at improving test results went to teachers' pay -- and scores improved

February 01, 2007|By Liz Bowie ... | Liz Bowie ...,Sun reporter

Local school systems in Maryland spent more than half the money from the state's new Thornton aid program to increase teacher salaries an average of 8.5 percent over three years, according to an independent study released yesterday.

Test scores rose in every county and the city over the three-year period -- particularly in the elementary grades -- although no one can prove the higher scores are linked to the extra money, the authors said.

"Things are getting better, in some cases dramatically," said Jerry Ciesla, a senior partner at MGT of America Inc., which did the evaluation for the state school board.

In 2002, Maryland began a six-year graduated increase in state funding that will provide $1.3 billion more a year to school systems throughout the state by the 2007-2008 school year. This year's increase is $1.15 billion. A preliminary report on how the money was spent from 2002 to 2005, the first three years of the increases, showed that 80 percent of the money went toward improving instruction in some way, including increasing the number of school-based staff and giving teachers more training. The average teacher salary across the state increased by about $4,079 to $52,330.

Besides staffing, school systems spent money on a broad array of new programs. They bought new textbooks and materials, provided more teacher training and rewrote curricula.

The report applauds the rise in test scores across the state. In many systems, 80 percent of students are passing state tests. Ciesla said that if the trend continues at the same pace, some school systems will meet the federal requirements that say 100 percent of students should be passing achievement tests by 2014.

Legislators had worried that local school systems would reduce their share of school funding because of the increase in state money, but the report noted that all but two school systems, both on the Eastern Shore, increased their funding. Even so, each county increased per-pupil spending by widely differing amounts. So while Baltimore County increased the local revenues that went to schools over the three-year period by $76 per student, Montgomery County added $997 more per student.

The federal government, on the other hand, reduced the dollars it sent to Maryland classrooms by 5 percent, even as it imposed the new requirements for testing and achievement on the state.

Maryland State Board of Education members expressed some concerns about the report's findings, saying they had hoped that more of the new money would have been spent on teacher training. "When you spend $9 million over 24 school districts, it is a pittance," said board member Dunbar Brooks. "It doesn't look like a high priority."

State board members said they also hoped to get more precise information on the effectiveness of certain strategies in improving education in a followup report. MGT is in the midst of a three-year, $1.9 million evaluation of how the new state aid was spent and what effect it had on achievement. The final evaluation, required by the original Thornton legislation, is due in two years.

In 2002, Maryland changed how it hands out state education aid. Instead of awarding money for specific uses, the General Assembly gave school districts the choice of how to spend the money. The state also began the graduated, six-year increase in funding.


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