Educators protest freezing Thornton

O'Malley seeks to slow growth of school funding

October 13, 2007|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,Sun reporter

Gov. Martin O'Malley's proposal to change the way education funding is calculated in the landmark Thornton law has angered education leaders, who say the state would be backing off from its promises to schoolchildren.

O'Malley is proposing to reduce the amount of state aid to school districts now required under a law passed in 2002 that increased state spending by $2 billion over five years. The law requires increases for inflation each year after this current school year.

The governor favors not funding those inflation increases for two years, an action that would require the legislature to reopen the Thornton law.

"We are not proposing that we reduce current levels of funding but we are requesting that they grow at a more moderate rate until we're able to get those other aspects, like the slots revenues, into place, which doesn't come until years three and four," O'Malley said Thursday on WAMU-FM's The Kojo Nnamdi Show.

The governor says the change would save about $400 million over the next two years by not giving school districts the inflation index calculated for local and state governments.

But at the same time the governor is taking away from all districts, he is giving to some. He said he will live up to a campaign promise to give urban and large suburban districts more money to offset the extra costs for transportation and salaries in certain geographic areas.

That increase amounts to about $38 million next year - split among 13 school districts - and rises over three years to $129 million.

When that is combined with some other increases, the governor said, he would be proposing a total increase of $119 million in state funding for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

Thornton impact

The state is spending almost $5.16 billion on education this year in its operating budget, compared with $3.12 billion in fiscal year 2003 - before the Thornton law required major increases in funding.

The law is named after Alvin Thornton, an educator who chaired the commission that devised the funding formula to raise standards for educating children.

In some of the poorest school districts, such as Baltimore, state funds represent more than half the dollars being spent on education.

The inflation index was 5.7 percent for the current fiscal year, nearly twice as high as projected, which required an additional $200 million in state funding, officials said. O'Malley said he wants to freeze the index for two years and then cap it at 2.5 percent starting in fiscal year 2011, for a projected annual increase of $110 million.

The Maryland State Teachers Association and the Maryland Association of Boards of Education (MABE) said they understand the budget problems that the state faces but pointed out that the freezes in spending come as schools are facing pressure to raise standards under federal law and state regulations.

Each year, the federal No Child Left Behind law requires schools to increase the number of students who are passing state tests. By 2014, every student will be expected to meet standards, or school systems could face sanctions.

In addition, the state school board is weighing whether to stick with its plan to require students, beginning with the Class of 2009, to pass four high school exams in order to get a diploma.

`Huge' outcry

"We are disappointed," said Clara Floyd, president of the teachers union. "If we are going to continue the progress that our students need to make, then we cannot accept any cuts in the funding."

Floyd said there has been a "huge cry among our membership" about O'Malley's proposal to scale back projected increases in state aid under Thornton. She said the teachers have met with the governor and have expressed their concerns.

"Nowhere in the nation has that kind of accountability been accompanied by decreased funding for the most needy," said Andres Alonso, Baltimore schools' chief executive officer. He said the system's labor costs and infrastructure costs will rise next year.

"We face a severe shortage under the proposal that has recently been advanced for vote. ... Under all scenarios, we will lose tens of millions of dollars," he said.

According to one analysis by school advocates, the change would cost Baltimore City $45.4 million in additional state funding that it would have received over the next two years with the inflation index in place.

But the city would pick up $6.8 million as a result of the geographic cost-of-education index next year, $13.7 million in fiscal year 2010, and $22.7 million when it's fully phased in for fiscal 2011.

The combined changes mean state education aid over two years would increase $8.2 million instead of $16.2 million in Anne Arundel County; $5.1 million instead of $32.4 million in Baltimore County; $2.5 million instead of $8.8 million in Carroll; and $4.6 million instead of $11.6 million in Howard. Rather than receiving $13.2 million more, Harford would receive no increase, the analysis indicates.

Local boards of education have deep concerns.

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