Given the state's modest economic recovery, it was asking too much to expect Gov. William Donald Schaefer to accede to the wishes of a school-aid commission that he increase education assistance by $69 million next year. The money's just not there. A slimmed-down and toned-down recommendation from the panel was the only pragmatic approach open to members.
While there is no denying the crying need for more financial help in this state's poorer school districts, it won't happen in 1994. It's an election year for state politicians, and no incumbent wants to be tagged as a "tax-and-spend pol" for supporting an aid-to-education proposal that would cost $332 million in the next five years. With the lingering recession still wreaking havoc in the state's budget, there was no chance the commission's initial wish list -- which we supported when it first came out -- would be granted.
The panel's recommendations had other practical problems, too. few affluent school districts, such as Montgomery County, would lose money under the plan. And a suggestion that the state limit its contributions to teacher pension funds is anathema to Montgomery legislators. The governor, whose power with lawmakers is waning, wisely asked for a more restrained package that includes about $20 million to help students living in poverty. That, at least, is affordable and marks another small effort to tilt the state aid plan in the direction of impoverished school districts.
But Maryland's lawmakers cannot continue to ignore the underlying problem in public education much longer: the state's poorer school systems are not treated equally with respect to funding. Unless the legislature agrees to a more equitable arrangement in the next few years, it could face a stiff legal challenge. Similar lawsuits have succeeded in other states recently, and Maryland's next group of leaders must keep that in mind. The role of the state in financing education should be to act as an equalizer, said state Sen. Barbara Hoffman of Baltimore. "The state has a responsibility to first help those who can't help themselves."