Funding for diversity


GAITHERSBURG - The new faces of Montgomery County can be found in Joanne Bliven's classroom.

There's Vy Ly from Vietnam and Ka Hin Cheun from China, and Blanca Linqui and Blenny Morejon from El Salvador. Jose Quintanilla is from California but his native language is Spanish. And sitting upright and attentive - but understanding only a few words of English - is Bruna Schneider, who arrived just three days earlier from Brazil.

"Every day, at least 45 minutes per class, I'm working with these children, helping them learn English," says Bliven, who teaches English as a second language. "These are the children who need the extra attention."

These are the new children of Montgomery, attending schools such as Gaithersburg Elementary - where pupils come from 53 countries and speak 13 languages. Since the mid-1980s, Montgomery's white enrollment has been virtually unchanged, while its population of black, Asian and Hispanic pupils has grown by 40,000.

And these children are why educators and lawmakers from Maryland's most populous jurisdiction are trying to modify a state task force's efforts to boost annual spending on schools by $1.1 billion within five years. County officials are stumping for a more expensive alternative that would benefit Montgomery, threatening to use their legislative might to scuttle the process.

"If we don't do something that's fair for Montgomery County, then I don't think we should do anything at all," says Democratic Del. Sheila E. Hixson, chairwoman of the House Ways and Means Committee and a member of the Thornton Commission.

The Thornton Commission - named for its head, former Prince George's school board Chairman Alvin Thornton - spent the past two years seeking ways to reduce inequities among Maryland's school systems and ensure that all have enough money to meet state student achievement standards.

Under the group's recommendations, the $2.9 billion spent by the state on public schools this year would increase by almost 10 percent next year. The rest of the $1.1 billion boost would be phased in over the remaining four years and require greater local spending.

Though Gov. Parris N. Glendening's budget proposes an additional $161 million for kindergarten through 12th grade next year, none of that money is earmarked for the Thornton recommendations - something many lawmakers are trying to change by finding more money.

The fate of the Thornton spending plan is perhaps the most significant issue facing the General Assembly this session, affecting a tight state budget, school budgets in all 24 jurisdictions and the future of Maryland's education improvement efforts.

Under the commission's recommendations, less affluent jurisdictions that teach large numbers of poor children - Baltimore, Prince George's County and some rural systems - would receive large amounts of extra state money. But systems such as Montgomery, which has the third-highest wealth per pupil in Maryland, would see far less.

Montgomery spends more per pupil than any other system in the state, including $8,000 in local funds per pupil this year - vs. the state average of about $4,750 per pupil.

In addition, Montgomery spends another $2,000 in state education aid per pupil, but that is third-least in the state. Average state aid is $3,481 per pupil.

Although Montgomery has the state's largest enrollment of about 137,000 pupils, it would receive only $5 million more in state aid next year under the commission's proposal.

During the final year of the plan, Montgomery would receive $73.7 million of the extra $1.1 billion handed out that year. Because of the district's size, though, that is the state's second-lowest increase per pupil - more than only Worcester County.

By contrast, Prince George's - almost the same size as Montgomery - would receive about $306 million in new state aid under the commission's plan that year. Prince George's spends far less local funds than Montgomery and is limited by a voter-imposed tax limit.

"I'm not questioning the fact that other jurisdictions need more money, and I'm not saying anyone else needs less," says state Sen. Ida G. Ruben, a Montgomery Democrat and chairwoman of its Senate delegation. "But what the Thornton Commission did was a direct slap at Montgomery County."

Within two weeks of the commission's recommendations, Montgomery officials offered an alternative to raise the $1.1 billion boost to almost $1.3 billion. Most systems would receive at least a little more money under the alternative, but none would benefit more than Montgomery, which would see its aid package almost double.

The county also is proposing that the state spend almost $563 million statewide - about $10,000 per kindergartner - to allow all 24 systems to increase classroom space enough for full-day kindergarten. This would be beyond the $1.1 billion Thornton recommendation.

Legislators and educators from Maryland's 23 other systems have largely given Montgomery's plans the cold shoulder.

But folks in Montgomery say members of the commission have a misguided picture of their home, still seeing it as all white and all upper-class.

Sure, Montgomery's median household income of $70,794 is the second-highest in Maryland, behind only Howard County in the Census 2000 Supplementary Survey. But Montgomery isn't just Potomac and Chevy Chase, full of million-dollar homes with immaculate lawns and wealthy Washington diplomats, they say.

"That's an old stereotype, one that we may have perpetuated inadvertently, or non-intentionally, but it's not true," says Montgomery's superintendent, Jerry D. Weast. "The reality is, and has been for a long time, that we are much more diverse than that."

In fact, Montgomery's minority student enrollment has grown so much that white pupils are no longer the majority, representing only 49 percent. The growing diversity isn't just along the borders with Washington and Prince George's County, but also along Interstate 270 and other commuter routes. Montgomery educates more than half the state's enrollment of children with a native language other than English - about 10,000 pupils.

Yet a recent Ford Foundation study found that Montgomery is the most expensive place in Maryland to live, requiring an income of $56,000 for a family of four to make ends meet. It takes $44,600 in Baltimore.

"I meet families all the time who are living three and four families to an apartment," says Rosa Baxter, a bilingual secretary at Gaithersburg Elementary. "We try to feed these kids breakfast, lunch, an after-school snack - and that's sometimes the last meal of the day for them."

Educating those children takes extra resources, educators say. Gaithersburg has four teachers devoted exclusively to immigrant children still learning English - who make up about 21 percent of the school's enrollment. It has one portable classroom just for parent classes on such topics as basic English and computers.

"We've got to take care of the families because educating them is so important to educating their children," says Principal Sharon Jones. "When the children leave us and go home, they literally go back to another country with another language."

Under Weast, the county has been adding full-day kindergarten, shrinking class sizes and giving teachers extra training at the four dozen or so most affected schools. "The achievement gap is really an opportunity gap, and given the proper opportunity, children will have more evenness in their achievement," Weast says. "Health care, early childhood education, more concentration of resources - that all takes more money."

Yet Weast and school officials also must keep up with the demands of the affluent portions of the county, who don't want their children in larger classes just because poor children need smaller classes elsewhere.

Over the years, Montgomery residents - who contribute about 22 percent of the state's property and income tax revenues - have been supportive of paying for quality education, both in their system and elsewhere.

In the Maryland Poll conducted for The Sun last month by Potomac Research Inc., Montgomery voters were more willing than those anywhere else in the state to pay higher taxes for education, and they also were far more supportive of extra money for Baltimore's schools than the state average.

"We've always been willing to help children throughout the state, but now the state has to help our children, too," says Del. Jean B. Cryor, a Montgomery Republican and member of the Thornton Commission.

Some Montgomery legislators say they're not looking to kill the commission's proposal, just to refine it to meet their needs, too. Even the governor has hinted that the plan may need changes to accommodate Montgomery.

But others are taking a more hard-line posture - at least for now - suggesting that a new education spending plan shouldn't be passed until the legislature can pay for it. "I look at it like trying to buy a new house when you can't even pay the rent on your apartment," says Democratic Del. Kumar P. Barve, chairman of the Montgomery delegation. "We should wait until this temporary economic downturn is over and then spend our future surpluses on education."

And as for those poor school systems threatening lawsuits against the state for inadequate education support? "Sue us," Barve says. "If they really think they have a lawsuit, go ahead and we'll settle it once and for all in the courts."

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