School Aid: Reform Hasn't Changed Much


When it comes to providing equal funds to public schools,Maryland has spent the last decade treading water. Despite two major efforts to reform the education funding

system in the 1980s, spending disparities between rich and poor school systems have not improved. In some cases, they have only grown worse.

To understand why history continues to repeat itself, look no further than last week. On Monday, a governor's commission on education backed off an ambitious plan to restructure the state's school funding system. The change would have tilted even more money toward poorer school districts, including Baltimore City, and away from affluent ones, particularly Montgomery County.

Montgomery legislators fought the idea, saying it would cost their county $21 million in anticipated funding over the next five years. Gov. William Donald Schaefer -- who appointed the commission last spring -- effectively scuttled the plan in November, saying that Maryland didn't have the money to fund it.

After five months of meetings, the commission finally punted. It sent the governor a small wish list last week -- including $20 million in grants to poor schools -- to consider as he heads into his final legislative session in January.

For those who have followed the education funding debate in Maryland, it was all deja vu.

"We have this very same conversation every four or five years in this state," said David W. Hornbeck, former state superintendent. "We appropriate a few more dollars, which doesn't result in any fundamental change in the spending ratio between rich and poor. And we beat our breasts and think we've done something."

From Maine to Alaska, states have debated this issue for the last quarter-century. California's high court was the first to rule a state school system's funding plan unconstitutional in 1971. Since then, at least 25 other states -- including Maryland -- have faced similar lawsuits over the fairness of their funding systems.

Maryland's Court of Appeals upheld the state's funding system in 1983. Last year, Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke threatened another lawsuit to get more money for the city. Whether Baltimore would win this time around is questionable, but in the intervening years, disparities between some of the state's richer and poorer jurisdictions have only widened.

Take Montgomery County, the state's wealthiest, which spends more per student than any other. In 1982, Montgomery spent $5,747 per student in 1991 dollars -- $2,111 more than Baltimore City. Ten years band two reform efforts later, the spending disparity had inched up to $2,195.

The difference between Montgomery and Caroline County, the lowest-spending jurisdiction in Maryland, has grown more. Between 1982 and 1991, the spending gap between the two rose 26 percent, from $2,117 in 1991 dollars to $2,671.

Money matters, says Maryland Schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick, because it is a prime indicator of academic performance. Maryland test scores show that students in some of the state's poorer jurisdictions are among those who do the worst in their studies.

dTC The reason funding disparities persist is no great secret.

Maryland's school funding system can't keep up with the economic growth in the state's wealthier counties. And there is neither the political will nor the money to change that.

The state contributes about 40 percent of Maryland's total school budget annually. This year, the state share was about $2 billion. County governments pay most of the rest.

In poorer areas, such as Baltimore City and Caroline County, state money makes up more than half of all school funding. In affluent counties such as Montgomery, it accounts for less than a quarter.

While the state was trying to redistribute more money to places like Baltimore City during the 1980s, Montgomery and Howard ** counties were riding the economic boom and pouring more of their own tax dollars into education.

For instance, the assessed property valuation per student in Montgomery County rose in constant dollars from $159,642 in 1982 to $250,872 in 1991. In Baltimore City, it grew at a much more modest pace, from $51,963 to $78,316.

"We have a fundamentally bad funding system," said Susan Leviton, founder of the nonprofit organization Advocates for Children and Youth, and also a member of the commission. "It's not that we don't know how to do it right. We don't have the political will to say, 'All children are Maryland's children.' "

Because of local school districts' ability to spend, there are only a few ways for the state to equalize funding. One would be to cap the amounts counties could spend on their schools, with the state redistributing the remaining money. Dr. Grasmick says that idea doesn't have a chance.

"It would be such a disincentive for a jurisdiction to support that," she said. "They see excellent schools being the drivers of economic development."

A second option would be to create a statewide school system that would pool all money for education. That isn't likely to happen soon, either.

"First of all, Maryland has an extraordinarily strong local government structure," said Donald P. Hutchinson, a former Baltimore County executive who chairs the commission. "Creating a state system . . . would fly in the face of local control, local impact, local school board responsibilities."

The notion hasn't been much more popular outside Maryland. Of the remaining 49 states, only Hawaii has adopted such a design.

So, this time around, the governor's commission endorsed a restructuring of the current funding system. The changes would have sent tens of millions of dollars more to poorer jurisdictions at the expense of some of the wealthier ones.

To lessen the blow to affluent counties, the commission proposed a huge funding increase -- $332 million -- over and above the $634 million increase already scheduled for the next five years. Flooding the system with dollars, the commission considered, would make sure that no jurisdiction would actually lose money.

The rising-tide strategy didn't persuade Montgomery legislators. It soon became clear that their county would receive $21 million less under the new system than under the old one.

They complained that the state's poorer jurisdictions were once again looting Montgomery. Commission meetings went downhill from there.

"There's only so much that a county can give up without destroying that county," said state Sen. Laurence Levitan, a Montgomery Democrat, before walking out of Monday's meeting. you're going to put all this new money into education, there's no reason why you have to take additional money away from subdivisions that are succeeding. If you want to [call] it parochial, it is parochial. Absolutely parochial."

To give more to poor jurisdictions without taking anything away from wealthy ones, the state would have to spend a lot more money. But by trying to accommodate suburban legislators, the commission priced itself out of the recession-plagued state budget.

When Mr. Schaefer heard the commission had recommended a $69 million increase in the first year alone, he flinched. He said $20 million sounded more like it, and the commission's plan quickly unraveled.

Although the state seems no closer to funding equity today than 10 years ago, some recent improvements are small steps in the (( right direction.

Maryland now has a comprehensive performance program that can show how students in each school system are doing in everything from reading to attendance.

Suburban legislators often debunk the concept of equalized funding, arguing that the extra money is sometimes wasted. Dr. Grasmick says the performance program should help show where money is making a difference and where it isn't.

The state also has the power now to take over schools that continue to fail, and it hopes to offer more cash grants to those that improve. Still, little suggests that inequities will change any time soon.

"I fear there won't be the power or the courage exhibited in this state on behalf of equitable funding until there is a successful lawsuit," said Mr. Hornbeck.

Short of that, another governor will probably impanel another commission five years from now, and the cycle will begin anew.

Frank Langfitt is a reporter for The Baltimore Sun.

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