In the Baltimore area, Anne Arundel's education spending this fiscal year dropped 2.1 percent below the year before. Baltimore and Howard counties are funding at the level needed to meet the law, and the city is spending 3.9 percent above the minimum.
For instance, Miller said, Talbot County is "a very wealthy county" with a "low tax effort" that could do far more for education. "The students could achieve far more if the county did what it was supposed to do," he said. Talbot cut its funding by $2 million, or 5.3 percent.
Public schools in Maryland are funded through a mix of tax dollars. The amount of funds a school system receives from the state is determined, in part, by the relative wealth of the county and the percentage of students living in poverty. Jurisdictions with greater wealth get fewer state and federal dollars because they can raise more tax revenue.
Baltimore County, for instance, gets about half of its education budget from the state, while Baltimore City schools get 67 percent from the state. Each county determines how much it can spend on schools. Baltimore County spends $6,648 per student, Howard spends $9,362 and Anne Arundel spends $7,750. The city spends $3,770.
Sen. Edward J. Kasemeyer, chairman of the powerful Budget and Taxation Committee, said he expects the General Assembly to pass legislation that would remove all doubt about what is expected from the counties.
"I think we've got to make sure that we put a policy out there that's very clear what it means," said the senior Democrat, who represents Howard and Baltimore counties.
Sadusky believes the per-pupil minimum does not provide enough money to adequately fund schools. A school system's costs for health care, utilities and purchases of everything from computers to pencils increase every year, he said. When counties provide only what is required by state law on per-pupil spending, school systems must cut other costs to maintain a balanced budget.
School systems typically economize by putting off building maintenance and training for teachers, and by increasing class sizes, he said.
"The question is what value are you going to place on education," Sadusky said. In some counties, he said, governments have reduced some tax rates during good economic times as state education funding increased. Now, he said, the question is whether those leaders will raise taxes to fully fund schools.
"Maintaining Maryland's outstanding system of public education requires that the state holds the line on funding and that counties hold the line on funding," said John Woolums, the executive director for the Maryland Association of Boards of Education. "The law ought to be able to penalize counties that don't play by the rules."
Baltimore Sun reporters Michael Dresser and Joe Burris contributed to this article.