Money for schools and the art of the possible


The people who want to do something about the severe disparities in school spending in Maryland are so obsessed with what's politically possible that when the woman from New Jersey began speaking last weekend, it seemed no one knew how to take it.

Her name was Margaret Goertz, and she had come all the way to Dundalk to address a conference on school financing sponsored by a group called the Metropolitan Education Coalition.

New Jersey used to be like Maryland. The rich districts were spending $2,000 more on each student than were the poor districts. That's about $60,000 a classroom. The state had an aid program that tilted some of its money toward the poor districts, but other state spending -- on teachers' retirement benefits, for example -- actually benefited the wealthier districts. Also, academic achievement in New Jersey's urban schools was a disgrace.

But New Jersey is no longer like Maryland. Last June, a landmark state court decision and radical legislation combined to turn school spending upside down.

The court focused on New Jersey's 28 poorest urban districts and declared that they must have as much money to spend as did the state's wealthiest districts. That would be like increasing Baltimore's school spending by almost 50 percent -- $200 million -- in one stroke, so that it matches Montgomery County's.

But the new law, which Gov. James Florio rammed through the legislature, goes farther. It sets a "foundation" level of spending, beginning at $6,800 per student (nearly $2,000 more than the Maryland average). The state analyzes each district's wealth and computes the district's ability to raise the foundation amount for each student. If a district falls short, the state makes up the difference. If a district does not fall short, it receives no state aid.

Minimum levels of aid to New Jersey's school districts, in other words, were abolished. The rich districts were told they could make it on their own, after a 4-year phase-out period. Moreover, the state turned the responsibility for teachers' retirement benefits back to local districts.

The cost to the state of New Jersey: about an extra $1 billion.

Ms. Goertz called the law a "highly redistributive approach." Seemingly the only cap on spending in poor urban districts is a requirement that budgets cannot increase by more than 30 percent in a year, to give local officials a chance to get a handle on the flood of state money coming in.

There's just one problem: With the economy going bad, the state is running a $2 billion deficit, and income and sales taxes are going up even as wealthy towns are taking on a greater burden of school spending. Now Governor Florio has a full-fledged tax revolt on his hands, and taxpayers are suddenly angry about the rush job on the reforms last June.

To her audience in Dundalk, what Ms. Goertz had to say was fascinating but more than a bit irrelevant -- as if, say, she had discussed the changing role of the monarchy in modern Norway.

Joseph T. "Jody" Landers, a member of the Baltimore City Council, said afterward he wanted to stand up and assure Ms. Goertz that there was no danger of anyone ever getting angry about the fast pace of reform in Maryland.

After Ms. Goertz had headed back to politically riven New Jersey, the 200 or so conferees -- education officials, union officials, parents, teachers, politicians, advocacy-group organizers -- went back to puzzling over what could be done about a system here in Maryland that spends more money on wealthy, motivated children than on poor, disadvantaged children. Over a school career the differences amount to as much as $26,000 for each kid.

"What we are looking for is not equity between systems but equity for all students," said Edwin Richards, the Caroline

County administrator, "whether they live on one side of the Tuckahoe River or the other, whether they live on one side of Dundalk or the other."

Some argued that the state should pay for education. Others talked about "targeting" $100 million, or $200 million, toward poor districts.

The reformers, however, face difficulties. For one thing, as several pointed out, not enough Marylanders are really that angry about the current system, and the will to push through radical changes doesn't exist. For another, sums like $100 million are both a lot of money and not very much.

It's a lot of money in a state with a projected $199 million deficit and a governor who was willing to tell the conferees, at day's end, that they could forget about huge infusions of new cash.

But if $100 million did suddenly materialize and was spread to the poorest districts, it wouldn't bring about a reformation of Maryland education.

"It's a Band-Aid at best," said William J. Nagel, president of the Wicomico County school board.

"Absolutely," said William R. Ecker, superintendent of Caroline County schools.

This led, finally, to a question that kept stumping everyone. The debate over school spending is always framed in terms of comparisons, of disparities, of proportions, of trends in state spending. But, one conferee wanted to know, who can tell me how much a good education costs?

"We don't know what we need to spend," acknowledged Henry Bogdan, Baltimore's lobbyist in Annapolis. He had been arguing that Maryland would need to increase its spending by $250 million just to raise the proportion of the state budget devoted to education back to the levels it enjoyed in 1984. "We're not sure what we're shooting at," he said.

Even Ms. Goertz had said, when asked the same question, that no one in New Jersey had been able to come up with an answer and that the state had fallen back on the levels spent by the wealthy districts as a reasonable gauge.

Jane Stern, head of the Maryland State Teachers Association, said St. Mary's College spends $11,000 on each of its students, motivated and interested as they are. That's about double the state average for elementary and secondary education, and she suggested it would be a good starting point. "And if $11,000 isn't enough, then we could ask for more," she said.

But Gov. William Donald Schaefer -- who by virtue of his job is a good deal closer to reality than is Ms. Stern -- said he had a feeling that enough is being spent on the schools as it is; it's just not being spent well.

"We need innovation and ideas and dedication and love," the governor said in a closing speech to the conference.

Carl J. Schramm of the Baltimore City Homeowners' Fair Property Tax Coalition received a decidedly cool reception to his pitch to give every student a voucher that could be spent at any school, public or private. He tried to make the point in a different way.

Educators, he said, are going to have to come up with bold ideas within the context of what's available, because taxpayers from Massachusetts to Montgomery County are getting fed up with the poor quality of services they receive from their governments.

They are declaring, he said, "that what government does is not worth the money paid."

"We have to get more for those dollars," he concluded. There is no alternative, he said. It's that stark. "This is the question that confronts a society that is not as wealthy as it once was."

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