AN EXPLOSIVE device soon could go off in the governor's office: a court ruling that the state violated a consent decree and must give every Baltimore student a decent education -- at a cost of $267 million more a year.
Poor, rural counties are almost certain to follow the city's lead and seek their own relief package. The total price tag could easily exceed a half-billion dollars once all the political dust settles.
This could reignite angry rifts between the "haves," led by Montgomery County, and the "have nots," led by Baltimore City. It could spill over into unrelated pitched battles.
It also could force a major revamping of the governor's budget plans, or a reduction in programs to accommodate the need for more education dollars. A worst-case scenario: Higher taxes to pay for the court-ordered settlement.
Legally, the state stands on shaky ground. Even Maryland's education chief says Baltimore's schools are woefully underfunded. The state admitted as much in signing the consent decree.
Then it failed to follow the consent decree and give the city extra money if the original settlement proved inadequate.
This issue could quickly reach the Maryland Court of Appeals. An opinion could come before the 2001 General Assembly session.
Legally, the question is whether Maryland has fulfilled its constitutional obligation to provide a "thorough and efficient" education to Baltimore City schoolchildren. Courts in other states have interpreted identical language to mean giving kids an "adequate" education by today's standards.
On those grounds, the state badly flunks the test.
Maryland's lame excuse has been to blame the city for poorly performing schools. That may have been true in the past, but now the school board is a joint city-state creation and has made great strides in running the system.
Besides, the state constitution makes no mention of the city's obligation to provide kids with an adequate education: that is the state's legally binding duty.
The last thing the governor and legislators want is a court-ordered rewriting of Maryland's school-aid program. They would rather cut a political deal.
That's the way it historically has worked. Whenever the city has threatened a nasty school-aid lawsuit, the state has pressed various mayors to settle for modest gains.
Gov. Parris N. Glendening probably will try that same approach. Some predict Mayor Martin O'Malley will fold his cards and accept a pittance.
But this time, things may be different. The school board no longer has to follow the mayor's lead. And if the state loses on appeal, Mr. O'Malley may not feel a need to settle for a modest compromise.
The new mayor may sense a political advantage in hanging tough.
His timing is excellent. A gubernatorial commission is supposed to issue a report late this year on revamping the school-aid formula. Few expect the panel to suggest revolutionary changes, but it gives the issue visibility.
Between the commission's recommendations, the city's lawsuit and demands from counties for increased school spending next year, Mr. Glendening will be under mounting pressure to live up to his self-proclaimed reputation as "the education governor."
It could take $100 million in next year's operating budget -- plus a chunk of school-construction money -- to satisfy the mayor. Satisfying the other 23 subdivisions could cost significantly more. Yet Maryland's continuing economic boom gives Mr. Glendening much of this needed cash.
That could mean scrimping on other social programs. Mr. Glendening has enjoyed great success tossing around surplus funds to mollify various interest groups. He may not have that luxury if school aid devours his projected surplus.
But what if Mr. Glendening -- or Kathleen Townsend, as his possible successor -- launched a school-aid reform initiative? What if they made it the focal point of their remaining time in office?
What if they embraced the concept of providing the necessary funds to ensure an "adequate" education anywhere in Maryland?
The cost could be immense. It might require big changes in state tax laws -- most likely a broadening of the state's sales tax -- to come up with the money needed.
But it would cement Mr. Glendening's legacy as a visionary education governor.
A huge increase in public-school aid throughout the state is a winning political issue -- both for Mr. Glendening's place in the history books and for Ms. Townsend's future ambitions.
Barry Rascovar is deputy editorial page editor.