Rockville music teacher Bill Brown sees what more public schools money can buy, and he doesn't want to give it up.
At Rock Creek Valley Elementary School, where Brown works, two years of increased funding has paid for teachers and equipment for a sizable deaf and hard-of-hearing population. Those students are getting the attention they need, he said, to meet the tougher testing requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind law.
But with talk growing that a costly schools reform program known as the Thornton plan might be scaled back, Brown plans to join thousands of teachers, parents and students for an Annapolis rally tonight to demand that the $1.3 billion program stay on schedule.
"The biggest concern is if it doesn't go through, what would be the impact with layoffs?" Brown said. "If Thornton is not fully funded, we anticipate pulling back from where we are, and that would be devastating."
Weather permitting, the Maryland State Teachers Association predicts that as many as 10,000 people could pack Lawyer's Mall tonight for one of the largest planned State House gatherings in recent history. The union and partner groups are calling for full funding of the state eduction program, a demand to which lawmakers and Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. have no easy response.
"We're hoping to break all records," said Patricia A. Foerster, president of the 59,000- member union. "We believe that the energy is out there, and people are ready to provide a visible sign of their support."
Their cries will bounce off a State House where, inside, state leaders are struggling for a consensus that would yank them out of a fiscal and political hole they've dug for themselves. Some lawmakers think the state can't afford the education promise, especially with Ehrlich opposing tax increases.
As the Assembly's session unfolds, the question of whether to meet or alter the requirements of the expensive Bridge to Excellence program is becoming a dominant and divisive issue.
Leading Republican lawmakers are preparing legislation that would extend the plan by four years, lowering its annual costs but keeping the overall commitment the same.
"The pure motivation is budgetary," said Senate Minority Leader J. Lowell Stoltzfus. "I'm willing to stick my neck out there and take the wrath of the MSTA."
Ehrlich says that if a video lottery plan doesn't pass this year, the education program - also known as the Bridge to Excellence act - will be shrunk. "A funding source is necessary, i.e. slots," said Greg Massoni, the governor's press secretary.
Complicating the issue further, calls for more money are being heard at a particularly inopportune time, as the Baltimore school system faces an enormous deficit that raises questions about how the state money it receives is spent.
Some lawmakers question the wisdom of enormous infusions of cash that might be used to patch over past mistakes in troubled school districts such as Baltimore's, rather than on new programs for children.
"If we are taking those funds and not projecting them into the future, but covering past holes, then I don't think we are doing the job we think we should do," said Del. Susan L.M. Aumann, a Baltimore County Republican who is seeking an attorney general's opinion on the appropriate use of Thornton funding.
The city schools' problems will hang over the scheduled rally and affect future debate. That crisis, Foerster said, "cannot help but force a lot of people to ask where the accountability begins. ... Obviously it is not easy for us to come to Annapolis and make these hard and fast demands."
The education program was adopted after a lengthy study headed by former Prince George's County school board chairman Alvin Thornton that analyzed the needs of pupils in wealthy and poorer districts. The result: a formula that increased and redistributed aide to meet the state's constitutional requirement for an adequate public education.
Activists say lawsuits will result if the funding schedule is changed.
But Stoltzfus sees no other choice. He is drafting legislation that would extend the schedule of the Thornton plan by four years but keep the $1.3 billion overall cost the same.
"The debate over how much money Thornton should be is over," Stoltzfus said. "The only question is how do we get to that goal. If we don't stretch it out, we have to cut out programs for the elderly, we have to cut into mental health, we have to cut into human services needs."
"I can't believe that educators would be that hard-hearted, that they would insist on immediate gratification at the expense of these other needs," he said.
But the "fund Thornton now" group has powerful allies. Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley plans to attend the rally, as does Prince George's County Executive Jack Johnson. Their jurisdictions would receive a total of about $140 million in additional school funding in next year's budget, nearly half of the $326 million statewide total increase.
The Legislative Black Caucus has pledged to use its influence in the fight, making the funding issue its top priority of the year.
"We pay more attention to crabs, horses and everything else," said Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden, a Baltimore Democrat. "It is absolutely ridiculous for anyone in Annapolis to talk about retrenching from education."
Some critics say Ehrlich has begun the retrenchment. His proposed fiscal 2005 budget, released last week, contained $48 million less for education under the Thornton plan than had been expected. The reason is that the governor followed an attorney general's opinion concluding that a formula contained in the law giving more money to jurisdictions where costs are higher was optional.
Democratic lawmakers hope to pass a law this year restoring the geographic formula's mandatory status. They also say they will remove another portion of the original law, referred to as a "trigger" provision, which requires that the assembly vote in March that money is available to fund the full package. A separate legal opinion said that such a vote amounts to an unconstitutional legislative veto.
The Thornton cleanup bills add to the confusion and tension surrounding the spending plan. As they fix the law, legislators will also decide whether they will pay a political price if they decide to alter its costs. As did nearly every legislator, Ehrlich ran for governor as a supporter of the plan, which polls show remains popular with voters. No one wants to be perceived as the politician who backed away from it.
Brown, the Rockville music teacher, said politicians must remember the children as they deliberate schools funding. Decisions in Annapolis, he said, translate into resources for needy children in schools that are miles away.
"Every one of those people is very valuable," he said.
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