Thornton sleight of hand

October 15, 2007

It's easy to sympathize with Gov. Martin O'Malley's dilemma. He has to close a $1.7 billion budget gap and is looking for savings in a sector - education - that accounts for a hefty share of state spending. He also promised during last year's gubernatorial campaign to help school districts with higher costs of living by adding funding called for as a supplement to the Thornton law.

But he's adding with one hand while taking away with another.

Under Thornton, Maryland has increased spending for K-12 education by nearly $2 billion in the last five years. But Mr. O'Malley was very critical of his predecessor, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., for not funding a geographic index that was supposed to give selected school districts, notably Montgomery and Prince George's counties and Baltimore, additional funding to compensate for increased education costs, such as helping teachers afford homes in the expensive jurisdictions where they work.

Now Mr. O'Malley wants to phase in the high-cost index over three years, adding $38 million in fiscal year 2009 and topping out at $129 million by 2011. That money would be shared by about half of the state's 24 school districts, but some needy districts that don't qualify on the basis of costs, such as Allegany, Somerset and Worcester counties, would be left out. Granted, that's the way the high-cost index is designed to work, but the harmful effects on less-affluent, rural districts at a time of painful belt-tightening might argue for deferring this phase-in even longer.

Baltimore would be one of the winners under the high-cost proposal, receiving about $6.8 million of the first-year total. But at the same time that Mr. O'Malley is offering such largess, he would freeze automatic increases that are pegged to a special inflation index; that would reduce funding to all districts by about $135 million just in fiscal year 2009. According to some analysts, using data from the Department of Legislative Services, every district would suffer a loss, including more than $21 million in Baltimore.

The administration thinks that's a better deal than some alternatives that would saddle districts with significant burdens, such as picking up a proportion of teacher retirement costs that might wreak more havoc on local budgets.

Be that as it may, the governor's proposal to cut across-the-board inflationary increases would hurt more districts than the special adjustment would help. It's a trade-off that needs to be reconsidered.

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