Finance: Fairness Remains Elusive


So much school reform, so little change. Nothing illustrates the point better than education finance.

In Maryland 10 years ago, rich Montgomery County spent 30 percent above the state average per pupil and 63 percent above the lowest spending district. A commission led by former U.S. Attorney General Benjamin R. Civiletti proposed several options, all of them putting additional money into the education pot and tilting the state formula more toward poor counties. One of the alternatives was enacted in 1984. When it was clear the Civiletti reforms hadn't achieved the desired fairness, Gov. William Donald Schaefer in 1987 persuaded the General Assembly to enact another plan, called APEX, to accelerate this process.

Yet after 10 years and two "major reforms," Montgomery County now spends 31 percent above the state average and 67 percent more than the lowest-spending district. Finance reform has not narrowed the gap.

Still, Governor Schaefer announced last week that he wants to convene yet another blue-ribbon panel to study the distribution of state education aid, which stands at $2.2 billion.

Maryland is hardly alone in this cycle of change-but-no-change. Spurred by a series of legal challenges in the 1970s, 35 states altered school funding. But a national study in 1988 found little progress toward ending spending disparities. And some of the states with court-ordered reform plans later returned to court, with the plaintiffs arguing the changes had been inadequate.

Why doesn't finance reform do the job? States do not want to take money away from well-off suburban schools -- that doesn't encourage improvement in education. It's also politically difficult to dump huge sums of new money into school aid. So most "reforms" are actually quite modest, and the slight tilt to benefit poor districts is balanced by demographic shifts -- the movement of the middle class away from central cities and rural areas and the growth of the tax base in the suburbs.

Maryland thus keeps revising its education-aid formula and then appointing blue-ribbon panels five years later that find the problem has gotten worse. This leads to passage of a new batch of school-funding reforms, and the cycle is repeated.

While fairness in distributing the money has not improved over the past 10 years, there's been a substantial increase in per-pupil spending in real dollars -- more than 40 percent in Maryland -- reflected primarily in a boost in teacher pay in the mid-1980s. But more spending has not produced better results; student achievement remains about where it was a decade ago.

While money alone may not be the answer, it makes no sense for the neediest to have less resources, for urban and rural schools to have larger classes, fewer books, fewer computers, teachers who are more poorly paid, inadequate numbers of guidance counselors and other support staff.

It is unlikely that Maryland -- or any state -- will move dramatically toward funding fairness in this era of tight budgets. Texas voters last Saturday rejected a "Robin Hood" reform package by nearly a 2-1 margin, despite a threat by the State Supreme Court to shut down the state's schools June 1 because spending disparities are so great they violate the Texas constitution. But despite the political difficulties, fairness must remain near the top of the education reform agenda. In concentrating on quality in the schools, policy-makers cannot forget educational equality.

Next: Turning Schools Upside-Down

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