Don't deny state's kids a quality education

October 28, 2007|By Kalman R. Hettleman

No one would disagree that all children should receive a quality education, and that our state and nation depend on it for a competitive work force and cohesive citizenry. Yet that isn't happening, despite the fact that such an education in Maryland is a constitutional right - as well as a matter of self-interest and moral principle.

Worse, at the special session of the General Assembly that starts today - called by Gov. Martin O'Malley to deal with the state's fiscal problems - the state may be on the path to backtrack on this right and the progress achieved over the past decade.

In 1996, the state Circuit Court for Baltimore City ruled that under the education clause in the Maryland Constitution, state government must fund public schools at a level that guarantees all children an "adequate" opportunity to meet rigorous academic standards. That court case led to a state Commission on Education Finance, Equity and Excellence - the Thornton Commission. The commission's report led the General Assembly in 2002 to pass the Bridge to Excellence Act.

This legislation compromised on the court's rulings and the work of the commission. Nonetheless, it reflected legislative courage and was a giant step forward. It provided for an estimated $1.3 billion in additional state aid over six years, distributed according to the wealth of local governments and special needs of students.

The law also provided, upon the end of the sixth year (this year), for additional funding indexed to inflation. Another provision - never funded - was a geographic cost-of-living index clause to compensate high-cost counties and the city.

The talk of Annapolis now is that in the interest of closing the state's budget gap, the inflation funding may be eliminated and the geographic index phased in slowly. This puts the city and other less-affluent subdivisions at risk of getting less aid next year than this year.

This is probably a doomsday scenario designed to set the stage for a less-onerous political package that would, at best, retain the inflation funding. But that would still be catastrophic for children in the city and elsewhere. Bear in mind:

This would give Baltimore less than half the additional funds per year than it has been receiving under the Bridge to Excellence Act, necessitating big cuts in instructional programs.

Even the large revenue infusions under that law were significantly less than ordered by the Circuit Court or considered by the commission.

The bar for "adequacy" - what it costs to enable students to meet academic standards - has been raised much higher by No Child Left Behind and the state's rigorous high school graduation tests since the court rulings and passage of the law.

A large majority of poor students throughout the state are not prepared to pass the exit exams (or an alternative under consideration). More money is now needed - for example, for smaller class sizes, interventions and extended school hours - if these students are to have a fair chance to succeed.

It's easy to lose track of these realities amid the jargon about the "implicit price deflator," which is what the inflation clause is called, and the geographic cost-of-living index - not to mention the sound and fury over tax increases and slots.

The governor deserves credit for facing up to these challenges. Although he has proposed restricting the inflation factor, he resisted pressure to trim the most expensive one-year leap in funding under the Bridge to Excellence Act, maintaining the high ground he occupied as mayor of Baltimore when he fought for schoolchildren against state officials.

Now, Mr. O'Malley and legislative leaders should state clearly that the constitutional obligation to provide adequate funding will be obeyed. That commitment, taking into account the steeper costs required by No Child Left Behind and exit exams, requires additions, not subtractions, to the minimal inflation and geographic-index funding.

It took political leadership to enact the Bridge to Excellence Act, and it will take more leadership now to keep the state from balancing the budget on the backs of schoolchildren - especially poor students who need the most help.

Kalman R. Hettleman is a member of the Baltimore school board. His e-mail is khettleman@comcast.net.

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