Allies support schools in suit

When the long-standing legal battle over the adequacy of state funding for Baltimore schools reaches Maryland's highest court today, education advocates will have the support of several prominent allies - including the architect of the state's landmark Thornton education reform law.

Alvin Thornton, the chairman of a commission whose report led to an unprecedented boost in state dollars for Maryland schools, and several state and national advocacy groups have filed briefs urging the Court of Appeals to uphold a Baltimore circuit judge's ruling that found the state had shortchanged city schools by $400 million to $800 million since 2000.

Courtroom conflicts over school funding are not unique to Maryland. Twenty-three states are fighting lawsuits that challenge the way they pay for public education, according to the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, an education advocacy group that won a $15 billion judgment against the state of New York last month.

Baltimore's school funding case has landed in the high court because of an appeal of Circuit Judge Joseph H.H. Kaplan's ruling by the state. Arguing that such power rests with legislators, the state says the judge overstepped his authority when he ordered the school system, city and state to immediately funnel at least $30 million more into city schools.

Kaplan issued the ruling in August, after education advocates urged him to examine the impact of major spending cuts implemented by city school officials last school year as they worked to reduce a $58 million budget deficit. The judge oversees a 10-year-old class action lawsuit, Bradford v. Maryland, filed by parents and joined by the city and Baltimore school board, that claims the state does not provide city students an adequate education.

Groups that filed briefs opposing the state's appeal include New York's Campaign for Fiscal Equity, New Jersey's Education Law Center and the National School Boards Association, Maryland State Conference of NAACP Branches, Maryland Latino Coalition for Justice and Maryland Education Coalition.

Lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, which represents the plaintiffs, argue that Kaplan's ruling was appropriate and similar to action courts elsewhere have taken in school funding cases.

In the New York case, a judge ordered the state to spend an additional $15 billion per year on New York City schools, said Molly A. Hunter, the Campaign for Fiscal Equity's legal research director. New York Gov. George E. Pataki has said he plans to appeal the ruling.

The ACLU also cites a lengthy New Jersey case in which a court ordered the state to close a funding gap between poor and wealthy school districts. The state complied and has paid $800 million toward the effort since 1990, according to David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center, which represents the state's students in the case. The court ruled again in 1998, forcing New Jersey to implement $1 billion worth of early childhood education programs for disadvantaged children, he said.

"In a few states, the state is slow to respond [to a court order] or inadequate in its response, and the courts become more involved and issue more specific remedy orders. That seems to be what's happening in Baltimore," Hunter said.

The support from out-of-state advocacy groups serves to "make clear to the court that [Kaplan's ruling] is not some outrageous example of judicial activism," as the state contends, said Louis Bograd, an attorney for the ACLU.

Thornton, who led a state commission formed in response to Baltimore's legal challenge, said he decided to participate in the Bradford proceedings because he felt the legislature's efforts to provide for children had been stalled in Baltimore schools.

The Thornton Commission's report became the basis for a 2002 law designed to boost education funding statewide by $1.3 billion over six years, including $258 million for Baltimore. It has been a challenge for the state to fully fund the measure because the law mandated revenue sources only for the first two years.

"Nothing should be done to take off track the funding concept included in Thornton," the former Prince George's County school board member said in an interview. "Any little thing that unravels the visionary concept endorsed by the governor, the legislature and the people of Maryland, including what's happening in Baltimore City, should always be opposed and prevented."

State education officials say Baltimore schools' $58 million budget deficit resulted from financial mismanagement by city school administrators, not a shortage of state dollars.

In its appeal, the state said it has complied with a 2000 order from Kaplan to boost aid to city schools by $2,000 to $2,600 per student. The appeal said the state pays $2,327 more per Baltimore student than it did in the 1998-1999 school year.

The ACLU, however, argues that added state dollars should be calculated from the 2000-2001 school year - after the judge's ruling - and should count only "new" money, not funds that the state adds each year to cover increasing costs of operating schools, such as employee salaries. Relying on calculations by William Ratchford, a former director of the State Department of Legislative Services, the group contends the state has provided only $500 per student in "new" money since the 2000-2001 school year.

The Maryland attorney general's office, which is handling the appeal, declined to comment.

The state's appeal also contends that Kaplan disregarded the impact of management problems within the school system, which the state said still exist. Most of the top city school administrators were replaced after the budget crisis.

"The circuit court's failure to acknowledge the overwhelming, ongoing budgetary and management dysfunction discounts a fundamental cause of [the school system's] continuing education problems," state lawyers wrote. "Until those management problems are resolved, additional state funding will not remedy the system's problems."

Chantel Morant, a member of the Algebra Project, a group of student tutors turned activists, said she was anxious to see how the Court of Appeals would resolve the differing points of view.

"This [hearing] is important because it pretty much decides the fate of the Bradford case and what the Algebra Project has fought for for so long," the 16-year-old City College junior said. "If we aren't victorious in this court ruling, who knows what will happen to our futures?"