House to restore education money

House plans higher fees; deeper cuts elsewhere

March 15, 2011|By Annie Linskey, The Baltimore Sun

House leaders want to reverse the bulk of the budget cuts to education proposed by Gov. Martin O'Malley, a move that would restore funding for strapped school systems in the Baltimore area and around the state after an angry backlash from teachers, students and parents.

The plan would shift $58.5 million back to schools by raising some fees and trimming elsewhere in the $14 billion general fund budget. Members of the House Appropriations Committee are scheduled to start voting Wednesday in Annapolis on those changes, which would restore two-thirds of the money that O'Malley proposed to cut.

"Investment in education is good public policy. It is good economic policy," said House Speaker Michael E. Busch. "It puts people on the path to success."

The House plan is designed to reaffirm in part the so-called Thornton formula, a landmark education funding mechanism that has pumped billions of dollars into the state's schools since it passed in 2002. The program has been a major driver of the state's annual deficits, making it a frequent target for budget hawks and Republicans.

Busch said the House proposal also would help financially stressed counties by reversing O'Malley's proposal to collectively charge them $35 million for the cost of collecting property taxes, currently picked up by the state. The House budget plan would leave O'Malley with a surplus of up to $130 million as a buffer against future shortfalls.

Aides declined to outline the expected fee increases or to detail where the offsetting cuts would be made. Many such details will be hashed out in the next few days.

The House plan would overturn one of the deepest cuts O'Malley had proposed.

The governor has been "working closely" with legislative leaders to restore the education funding, said O'Malley spokesman Shaun Adamec. "We're glad to have found a way to do it."

It is unclear whether the Senate will support the House of Delegates' proposal. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said Tuesday that the House plan would "reward" all counties. "The Senate is not going to be that generous," he predicted.

Senate committees are scheduled to start preliminary votes on the budget next week.

The House plan could ease criticism aimed at O'Malley since he unveiled his budget proposal in January that would have drastically reduced the amount of state money that schools receive per student, a figure spelled out under the 2002 education funding law.

The House plan would provide $6,694 per student. Baltimore would get state funding of $866 million in the next fiscal year — $10 million more than under the governor's budget but $5.6 million less than last year. The House plan would return about half of the $21 million that Prince George's County would lose under the governor's budget but falls nearly $11 million short of last year's funding.

House Minority Leader Anthony J. O'Donnell, a Southern Maryland Republican, dismissed the House proposal as "more spending." He pointed to persistent projected budget deficits. "If we don't somehow stop these spending increases, we are never going to solve that problem," he said.

But local education officials and advocates who had launched an assault on O'Malley's budget proposal praised the House proposal.

Baltimore schools CEO Andrés Alonso said he is "grateful" for "this step in the right direction" by lawmakers. A spokesman for Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz said it was "good news" for their system, which stands to gain $13.5 million over last year's funding and $6.8 million more than proposed by O'Malley.

The House plan would add restore funding to each of the state's counties, with about half receiving more money than last year.

Still, some advocates want more.

"It is not sufficient," Alvin Thornton said of the House plan. He led the commission that recommended the state's funding formula for education, and his name has become synonymous with it. "Anything that is not fully funded, it is a problem and has to be seen as a problem."

Nonetheless, he called the House plan a "a significant improvement" over O'Malley's proposal. "The people and children of Maryland would have to be appreciative of that," Thornton said.

Thornton joined more than 1,000 Baltimore teachers, students and parents at a rally last week in Annapolis, one of many that advocates organized to protest the governor's proposed cuts. In fact, opposing the education cuts has become something of a cause celebre in Annapolis this session.

Last month, Del. Cheryl Glenn, a Baltimore Democrat, earned cheers from education advocates at a gathering when she pledged to vote against O'Malley's budget unless cuts were reversed. Del. Jill Carter, a Baltimore Democrat, walked out of a judiciary committee vote on same-sex marriage, saying that education funding should get as much attention as that hot-button issue.

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