The waiver waver

Our view : Paying for schools may be a challenge this year, but counties must prove that waiving the state's long-standing funding formula is justified

March 29, 2009

Most parents of young children and education advocates may have breathed a sigh of relief last week. The House of Delegates approved a budget that was relatively kind to K-12 public schools, and the Senate may be convinced to do the same. But in the next few days, the outlook could change substantially.

That's because this Wednesday is the deadline for local governments to apply for a waiver of maintenance of effort - a state law requiring them to spend as much on public schools on a per pupil basis as they did the year before. For 15 years, not one single jurisdiction from Baltimore to Worcester County has ever applied for such a waiver, but by April 1, the majority are expected to do just that.

That could spell trouble for school systems that appeared to have dodged the budget bullet just a few weeks ago thanks to the federal stimulus package. Without the state maintenance of effort requirement, however, Baltimore and Maryland's 23 counties would be free to spend far less on schools than they have in the past, tens of millions of dollars less, in some cases.

As of Friday, the state school board had yet to receive its first official waiver request, but officials have been told to expect a flood of them in the next 48 hours, although Baltimore budget officials say the city won't seek one.The General Assembly granted a blanket waiver to all Maryland subdivisions during the recession of the early 1990s, but the law was changed in 1994 to allow each jurisdiction to seek waivers independently. Last week, representatives of the Maryland Association of Counties lobbied lawmakers to issue a general waiver again, but that now seems unlikely - and rightly so.

Local government ought to stand up and make the case for why schools should be shortchanged. Under state law, that means proving that fiscal conditions "significantly impede" a county's ability to pay. That's a pretty ambiguous term, and economic circumstances are likely to vary - as would the impact of a major reduction in local funding on classrooms.

The counties are bound to complain that the waivers are only necessary because the state is about to reduce local aid (the House version of the budget cuts it by nearly $300 million). That's true, but it's only part of the picture. Baltimore County is choosing not to apply for a waiver, for instance, because actions taken last year to limit salary increases and lower retirement costs have made it unnecessary.

Any reduction to K-12 education funding deserves the closest possible scrutiny. Otherwise, the increased state funding of recent years (and the resulting improvements in student performance) could be compromised. Let's hear the arguments for cutting school aid as they are presented to the state school board - and judge on a case-by-case basis whether the action is justified or not.

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