Education activists rallied in Annapolis yesterday to support a plan to significantly increase state education spending over the next five years, but leading lawmakers were pessimistic about prospects for the Thornton Commission's proposal.
"I think it's very unlikely that we're going to pass a Thornton bill," said House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., an Allegany County Democrat. "There's no money for it."
Other legislators offered slightly more hope that they can come up with at least a small portion of the $1.1 billion spending increase sought by the commission - but even they said the chances of passing a change in the state's school funding formula are uncertain.
"Education is going to be a major consideration as we work with this budget," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller. "If we can't come up with a law on the Thornton proposal, perhaps we can come up with some money for at least some parts of it."
The Thornton Commission spent the past two years studying Maryland's system of school financing, seeking to reduce inequities among the 24 public school systems and ensure that all have enough money to meet state student achievement standards.
Under the plan, the $2.9 billion the state is spending on public schools this year would increase by almost 10 percent next year. The total $1.1 billion annual increase in state spending would be phased in over five years. Greater local spending also would be required.
Though Gov. Parris N. Glendening proposes spending an additional $161 million on kindergarten through grade 12 education next year, none of that money is earmarked for the Thornton Commission's recommendations. The governor says the recession and tight state budget make it impossible to back the Thornton plan this year.
During a lunchtime rally, supporters of the Thornton plan, including teachers, parents and local school board members, argued that Glendening and the General Assembly need to change their budget priorities.
"The recommendations of the Thornton Commission cannot be allowed to gather dust while our children are left to flounder with an education that is not properly funded," said Patricia A. Foerster, president of the Maryland State Teachers Association.
Christopher N. Maher, education director of Advocates for Children and Youth, said lawmakers ought to consider raising taxes to implement the Thornton report. A poll conducted for The Sun last month found that 52 percent of state voters supported raising taxes to pay for the commission's recommendations, while 40 percent were opposed.
If lawmakers fail to provide money for the plan, educators in Maryland's poorer jurisdictions - including some rural areas, Prince George's County and Baltimore - have suggested they would sue the state. They would argue that it has fallen short of its constitutional requirement to provide for an adequate education.
"It's going to be very difficult to pass Thornton," said Del. Howard P. Rawlings, a Baltimore Democrat and chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. "If we don't, those districts will not be satisfied, and I think they will have to sue."
Rawlings and other legislators who served on the commission introduced legislation yesterday to put the panel's recommendations into law.
Some lawmakers favor waiting to pursue those recommendations until next year while a task force studies revenue options for transportation, health care and education. In the meantime, they would seek some type of bridge funding, perhaps to help school systems with transportation or special education.
Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, a Baltimore Democrat who is chairwoman of the Budget and Taxation Committee, said yesterday that she opposes that idea and would rather approve a new funding formula as called for in the Thornton report.
"I wouldn't want to put in any more education money without doing the hard work of redoing the formula," Hoffman said. "I don't believe people should be allowed to eat their dessert before they eat their dinner."
Taylor, however, dismissed the idea of approving a formula but delaying additional money for a year.