Students offered credit for rally in Annapolis

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Maryland education leaders are encouraging students to attend a school-funding rally in Annapolis next week by dangling the prospect of graduation credits and free transportation, enticements that Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and other critics are calling improper.

In Montgomery County, students can receive credit toward a community service graduation requirement by attending the event, in support of a landmark multi-year schools-funding program that would add $1.3 billion yearly to education funding by 2008.

The offer is prominently displayed on the school district's Web site.

Baltimore City and Carroll County students could also qualify for service credit, district officials say, but the decision is up to individual principals.

In Prince George's County, schools will close two hours early to free up dozens of buses carrying thousands of staff members, students and parents to Annapolis.

And in other districts in the Baltimore region, parent-teacher association funds and some taxpayer money are being used for transportation.

Education officials say the funding formula is so critical to the success of public schools that students, parents and teachers should gather in Annapolis by whatever means possible.

But the pot-sweeteners are drawing jeers from lawmakers and others who find the effort manipulative and self-serving.

"I think it's sending a message of politics over education," said Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus, the Senate Republican leader from the Eastern Shore who believes that the expensive education plan will force drastic cuts in social services and other programs if not scaled back in future years.

"If it's teaching [students] anything, it's teaching them to be selfish and think of their own self-interests," he said.

Rally organizers say they hope to make the event the largest in recent Annapolis history, and students are expected to make up a sizable part of the crowd.

"We think this is a very important rally, and we will do whatever we can within our means to support it," said Edie House, a spokeswoman for the Baltimore school system.

House said she wasn't sure how many Baltimore schools would offer service credit as in Montgomery, "but we are confident that some of our principals are."

Tense political issue

The gathering - organized by a coalition that includes the Maryland State Teachers Association, the Maryland Parent-Teachers Association and the Maryland Association of Boards of Education - illustrates the tense politics surrounding the issue of public school funding this year.

In 2002, the General Assembly passed a law commonly known as the Thornton Plan, designed to redistribute state assistance among richer and poorer school districts so that all students would receive an adequate education.

But lawmakers never approved a funding source to pay for it; they are supposed to take a vote next month confirming the money is available.

Ehrlich provided most of the money required by the plan in the budget he submitted this year - adding $326 million to bring total classroom spending to $3.6 billion - but he says that without slot-machine gambling, the initiative won't be affordable in future years.

The governor, however, omitted $48 million that Baltimore, Montgomery and other large urban districts were to receive, based on a legal loophole. That decision has drawn criticism from activists.

Governor distressed

Ehrlich is distressed that school districts appear to be spending public resources such as time and transportation on a political event, said Paul E. Schurick, the governor's communications director.

"Using taxpayer money to whine that the largest increase in education funding ever is not enough is wholly inappropriate," Schurick said.

School officials in Montgomery, the state's largest and most affluent district, say they decided that the event would be eligible for student-service credit after receiving inquiries from parents and students.

Advocacy on political issues counts toward the 60 hours of service that students need to graduate, according to the district's Web site.

Questions on credit

But Sam Penner, a Montgomery County activist who has been fielding complaints about the decision since posting it on the county Republican Party's Web site, said the rally shouldn't count as a state graduation requirement.

"They should get credit for helping people in the community, maybe going to a retirement home and reading to people," Penner said.

"But this is a political thing, and I don't think they should get credit for a political thing."

Bill Reinhard, a spokesman for state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick, said local school systems decide individually what constitutes service learning hours, which can include volunteer work at churches or homeless shelters as well as advocacy activities.

It was not the state's suggestion that the rally be counted as community service, Reinhard said.

Carroll County officials, likewise, say rally attendance could qualify for student-service hours, while Baltimore County educators said they had not yet considered the issue.

In Harford County, service hours are usually performed in a classroom setting, officials said.

In Prince George's County, students will miss two hours of instructional time Monday - the day of the event - when schools close early.

The district is sending up to 60 buses to Annapolis, said schools spokeswoman Lynn McCawley, which are being paid for by a self-funded committee that supports the Thornton plan. Students over age 12 are being encouraged to attend, but only with their parents, she said.

McCawley said the lost instructional time will not be made up.

"There's no academics without funding for academics," she said. "It doesn't happen very often. They are considering this a big, major initiative."

Reinhard said the state would prefer that students not lose class time to attend.

"When it comes to activities that are non-school-related, we do not agree with taking away from instructional time," he said. "That is something we have concerns about."

To get students to the rally, Baltimore and other area districts will use a combination of public and private funds.

Michael Hamilton, president of the Baltimore City Council of PTAs, said at least 19 buses will be leaving the city to attend Monday's rally - nine of them paid for by the PTAs.

The other buses are being provided by the city school system, at least one high school alumni organization and the political action group Acorn, Hamilton said.

PTA funds are also being used for buses in Baltimore and Carroll counties.

The rally is not the only effort under way to preserve Thornton funding. A House of Delegates subcommittee voted yesterday for an emergency bill that would remove part of the Thornton law that the attorney general's office says might be unconstitutional.

The offending provision required a legislative vote in mid-March affirming that the state had the money for the plan. But the U.S. Supreme Court and state courts have ruled in other places that such a vote is not proper, the attorney general's office says, so leaving in the clause could spark lawsuits that could upend the Thornton plan.

Stephanie Desmon, Tanika White, Liz Bowie, Hanah Cho, Lane Harvey Brown and Sara Nuefeld contributed to this article.

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