6,000 attend schools rally

Kareem Ali (second from right), 12, and Tim Mullaney, 11, who attend Greenbelt Elementary in Prince George's County, hold high their homemade signs supporting the $1.3 billion-a-year Thornton Plan.
Arriving in buses and carrying light sticks to pierce the dark, thousands of teachers, parents and students marched to the State House last night to implore politicians to honor a commitment to a $1.3 billion-a-year schools funding plan despite tight budget times.

A coalition of unions, parent groups and youth advocates said they achieved their goal of coordinating the largest rally in recent Annapolis history.

"I'm impressed," said Sen. George W. Della Jr., a Baltimore Democrat, as he watched the crowd stream down a closed Rowe Boulevard and past the James Senate Office building. "This is more people than I've ever seen in Annapolis."

About 120 school buses were parked at the Naval Academy stadium by 5:30 p.m., police said, when an accident on eastbound U.S. 50 near Rowe Boulevard left many stuck in traffic. State Department of General Services police estimated the crowd at 6,000.

As the streets filled, speaker after speaker rose to a Lawyers Mall podium to implore politicians peeking through windows or hustling between buildings to raise funds for the mandated education plan imperiled by projected future funding shortfalls.

"Stop fighting within yourselves, and get together and find us the money," said Esther Parker, head of the Maryland Congress of Parent Teacher Associations.

The rally included many eager to participate in a show of civic action, and some not so willing. Eight-year-old Chinua Abubakar was fidgeting in the evening chill, so his mother wrapped his ears in a knit cap but rebuffed his calls to leave. "I've been telling him he must listen," said Darlene Abubakar, a Prince George's County resident who wants smaller class sizes.

Education groups are trying to pressure Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and lawmakers to continue their commitment to an education plan passed in 2002 without a funding source to cover its costs.

The Thornton Plan was designed to eliminate inequities between richer and poorer school districts, and to avoid lawsuits from advocacy groups that could sue the state claiming Maryland was not meeting a constitutional requirement for adequate education.

Ehrlich has included much of the money for the program in his proposed budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1, but says that without legalized slot machines, future years may be unaffordable.

"If this is a rally that supports K-12 education, then this is a slots rally," said Ehrlich spokeswoman Shareese N. DeLeaver.

But many in the crowd said they rejected the notion of using legalized gambling to pay for public education.

"We think that term 'slots for tots' reeks of questionable ethics," said Beth Novick, a sixth-grade teacher at Greenbelt Elementary School in Prince George's County who brought two of her pupils.

"If no one comes down here, I'll wake up one morning and have no P.E. class," said Tim Mullaney, 11, one of Novick's pupils.

While virtually every politician in Maryland campaigned as an advocate of the schools funding plan, there is little agreement now on how to pay for it. The state teachers union has endorsed an increase in Maryland's sales tax, from 5 percent to 6 percent. Ehrlich promises to veto a tax increase.

Rally organizers attracted criticism amid reports that some school districts were giving students community service credits required for graduation in exchange for attending the event. Prince George's County schools closed two hours early, and some districts used public funds on buses.

Speaking on WBAL Radio yesterday, Ehrlich said he would ask state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick to investigate the propriety of granting service credit for what many viewed as a political event.

Ehrlich was nearby, inside the governor's mansion attending meetings, but did not observe the rally, said press aide Greg Massoni. No elected official was invited to address the crowd.

The governor's office estimated the cost of the rally to taxpayers - including police and transportation - at $57,000. While the governor welcomed civic participation, Ehrlich did not think it was appropriate to spend public resources on the event, Massoni said.

Sun staff writer Lynn Anderson contributed to this article.