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Lock in our commitment to Maryland schools

When it comes to public school funding, this is a time for appreciation — but not complacency.

Gov. Martin O'Malley deserves thanks for trying once more to hold the line on aid to public schools in his proposed budget, and for making a commitment to school construction funding as well. Indeed, the governor has tried to maintain both capital and operating aid to public schools despite the global economic downturn that has seriously eroded state revenues during his Administration.

He has put $130.8 million into the Geographic Cost of Education Index (GCEI), a formula that recognizes differences in the cost of living across the state and helps school systems in higher-cost counties to pay teachers a reasonable salary. He has also asked for funding and legislation this year to support a transition toward more accurate wealth accounting among counties. (A fairer measurement of relative wealth would lead to a fairer distribution of state monies.)

And Mr. O'Malley continues to champion local school construction aid. While the state has pledged $250 million per year, he again exceeds that mark. For 2014, he requests $336 million, of which $25 million is directed toward schools without air conditioning and $25 million is reserved for school security improvements.

A little history is perhaps in order. In 2002, Maryland enacted the landmark Bridge to Excellence in Public Schools Act — the Thornton law — which embodied a progressive aid formula. But since fiscal year 2009, the increase in operational funding for education has not risen along with inflation. For that year, the governor and General Assembly changed the original statutory formula to eliminate the inflation allowance. Then, for fiscal year 2013, they allowed no more than 1 percent for inflation.

The cumulative effect has been to cost the 24 local school boards $700 million per year, compared to the original formula. As a result, school systems are reducing the number of teaching positions and other important in-school staff. Entire programs are being eliminated.

The Maryland Education Coalition believes that every child should have the opportunity for a comprehensive curriculum. Of course, rigorous instruction in reading mathematics, science, social studies and foreign languages should be provided. But programs in art, music, drama, and physical education are equally important. These opportunities are disappearing — and some of our kids are going with them.

On the capital side, increased state aid has not kept up with need, especially in Baltimore. Many city schools have deteriorated so badly that they are not only unfit as learning environments but unhealthy as well. Even in the wealthier parts of the state, sprawl and enrollment increases have created large unmet needs.

Despite the governor's promise, the legislature may still cut from the budget he has proposed before it is enacted at the end of this legislative session. The success of the referendum expanding gambling doesn't guarantee that those profits increase total school funding, either. Moreover, in future years, other governors could favor different priorities, leaving public schools even more vulnerable to staff and program reductions.

All students, regardless of race, class, wealth or jurisdiction, should get a quality education. Maryland's historic commitment to equitable and adequate funding of public schools has improved learning generally, reduced disparities and brought national recognition, but injustices remain within and among school districts.

That's why a law that creates a statewide base level of funding for school construction — in tandem with the envisioned long-term mechanism for funding city schools construction — is important. It's also why the loopholes that have emerged in the state's landmark funding formula for education finance should be definitively fixed, so that as costs rise the formula keeps pace.

If Governor O'Malley succeeds in directing $336 million toward remedying the dilapidated and unhealthful conditions in so many of our schools, it will be a step forward. We should, in any case, prepare for changes in circumstance that might come in future administrations.

Maryland has once again been named tops in the country for its public K-12 education results. That's an honor, and it reflects a substantial and sustained investment in our schoolchildren. It also creates conditions for continued prosperity. Let's make our investment a fuller pledge, a central and continuing hallmark of this state, and a commitment that is protected and prioritized in law.

Charlie Cooper (charlie.coop@verizon.net) is secretary and former chairman of the Maryland Education Coalition board. Sharon Rubinstein (serubins@aol.com) is a member of the board.

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