Education advocates and state leaders say that school funding cuts by nearly one-third of the state's 24 local jurisdictions will undermine progress at public schools that have been repeatedly ranked as the nation's best. Class sizes are rising, teachers are not getting the support they need, and school buildings are not being well maintained, said interim state school Superintendent Bernard Sadusky.
County governments, which have suffered under difficult economic times, are interpreting the law that requires them to maintain the same per-pupil spending from year to year differently. Local officials contend that changes made during the final days of last year's General Assembly session, and a state school board legal opinion issued in May, allow them to dip far below funding levels required.
One Eastern Shore county, Wicomico, has slashed its local funding by about 27 percent in the past two years. The state says preliminary budget figures also show that Anne Arundel, Montgomery, Dorchester, Kent, Talbot and Queen Anne's counties have also dropped their per-pupil funding this year to less than the year before.
While some of those counties face a penalty for refusing to fully fund schools, Sadusky said he believes county officials have calculated that it is cheaper in the long run to pay the penalty. That's because next year counties only have to fund at the level they cut to — which becomes the new minimum requirement.
Sadusky and other advocates contend that the responsibility to fund public education should be shared by local, state and federal governments. The state, for instance, now spends $1.6 billion more a year than in 2002.
Two counties — Anne Arundel and Talbot — are vigorously disputing that they don't provide enough funding to meet legal requirements.
Anne Arundel argued in a letter to the state this week that when all the dollars it spends on education are counted, including the amount it spends on interest on debt, it does meet the minimum spending. And in a short letter in December, Talbot County officials bluntly wrote: "There is no legal requirement for a county to fund its board of education" at the same per-pupil level of the year before.
Anne Arundel County Executive John Leopold, a Republican, said that spending on schools is crowding out funding for other agencies. Twenty years ago, the school budget represented 42 percent of the budget and today represents 52 percent. And during his tenure, Leopold said, the education budget has increased 17 percent while spending on all other agencies, including public safety, transportation and economic development, has declined.
"That speaks out for correction," he said.
But General Assembly leaders, angered by the stance of some county governments, are seeking to change the law this session. "The counties aren't doing their fair share," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., a Prince George's County Democrat.
Miller said he intends to make sure the law mandates that local governments can't decrease school funding. He said that he and House Speaker Michael E. Busch, an Anne Arundel County Democrat, both have "strong" opinions about the need for counties to maintain funding.
County governments agree that the legislation needs to be changed — though not in the same way. Leopold pointed out that counties have not received credit for the years they have "far exceeded" minimum per-pupil funding.
In 2002, the state legislature agreed to increase funding for schools substantially over several years to achieve what's needed to provide an adequate education for every public school child.
But state legislators also wanted to ensure that the counties and Baltimore City didn't reduce the amount of local funds going to education with the influx of additional state aid. So local governments were required to maintain the same per-pupil spending from year to year or face a penalty.
Then last session, local governments pushed hard to get legislative changes to give them wiggle room.
As the debate over the issue re-emerged in Annapolis this week, Maryland's public schools were ranked first in the nation by Education Week. The education publication gave the state high marks, among other things, for the equitable way it funds its school systems.
Education advocates now say that equitable funding system may be threatened.
"Last-minute legislative changes in the 2011 session have allowed local governments to dramatically lower their school funding, threatening the delicate state-local funding partnership and the continued high quality of our schools," said Clara Floyd, president of the Maryland State Education Association.
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.
Montgomery County has cut its funding level for several years, but its spending on schools is still the second-highest in the state — at $9,758 per pupil. Miller said Montgomery's funding levels do not concern him as much as those of other counties.
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.