The Thornton dilemma

February 20, 2007

In the past several years, Maryland's landmark Thornton law has significantly addressed some historical inequities and inadequacies in school funding throughout the state. But according to a statewide child welfare group, it has missed the mark in targeting services to at-risk students. The group, Advocates for Children and Youth, wants districts to be reminded of their obligation to at-risk students - but contrary to what the group seems to think, districts should not be hamstrung as to how they do it.

Thornton money has helped create a more level playing field among districts that are different by way of geography, wealth and other characteristics. When Thornton is fully phased in by fiscal year 2008, the state is expected to spend an extra $1.3 billion a year for K-12 education. In addition, districts have been given more flexibility to determine how they can best address the needs of certain students, including at-risk students.

But in an examination of five districts with about 70 percent of the state's at-risk students, ACY found that spending on this population was not up to par. According to the recently released report, money for specific services, such as after-school programs, extended class time and individualized instruction, has often decreased under Thornton.

State schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick and local officials defend spending more to boost teacher salaries and to recruit and retain quality teachers as one of the most effective ways to help students who are in danger of failing. They are holding local districts accountable for how these students are doing through updated master plans, which are much more strategic and results-oriented under Thornton.

Certainly, hiring academic coaches and providing support to students are among the ways the Thornton commission thought at-risk students could be helped. But ensuring quality teaching and reducing class sizes are also effective ways to address student needs.

Districts are rightly using Thornton money for broad interventions that can lift all students and for targeted strategies aimed at low-performing students. While it doesn't hurt to remind school districts of their obligation to help at-risk students, "help" should not be narrowly defined.

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