A long-simmering debate over a state program that would funnel state aid to needier schools boiled over yesterday in the Senate, as lawmakers questioned why some areas - such as Baltimore City and Prince George's and Montgomery counties - would win so much of the money.
The program, one of the final components of a multiyear school reform strategy, would distribute millions of dollars for education on a county-by-county basis. Jurisdictions where it costs more to run schools because of variables, including cost of living and crime, would receive larger yearly allowances.
"I think we're being penalized for what we're trying to do - which is the right behavior," said Sen. James Brochin, a Baltimore County Democrat. "It just doesn't seem fair to me at all."
Known as the "Geographic Cost of Education Index," the program would distribute $64 million to counties beginning in 2009 to alleviate education costs. The money would gradually increase to about $115 million a year.
Though the bill lays out how the money would be divided, it does not specify where the money would come from.
"We're going to find the money to fund it," said Sen. Ida G. Ruben, a Montgomery County Democrat.
"The taxpayer is going to fund it," responded Sen. Andrew P. Harris, a Baltimore County Republican. "I suspect we're going to be using the 'T-word' once the election is over."
In the first year, Prince George's County would get the most money, $19.8 million, followed by Montgomery County with $15 million and Baltimore City with $11 million.
Educators and major school advocacy groups strongly support the bill.
Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden, a Baltimore Democrat, said the money is a critical tool for areas like Baltimore.
"It's disturbing sometimes when people try to do, 'Look what you got.'" he said. "But you have to take into consideration what the needs are. ... They need more, that's all."
Senators who represent some of the rural counties expressed frustration that their jurisdictions would see so little help from the program.
"I'm concerned about not treating everyone the same in Maryland," said Allan H. Kittleman, a Howard Republican. "I'm concerned we're giving money to counties that are probably best able to find money themselves."
Richard F. Colburn, a Dorchester County Republican, added: "Caroline, Dorchester and Talbot counties don't get a penny - you rob from the little and give to the big?"
Colburn said that perhaps the larger counties were getting the money because they have the votes.
"No," Patrick J. Hogan, a Montgomery County Democrat, replied, "what we've got is the kids. ... We've got more kids in trailers than any jurisdiction in the state."
The bill would require the State Department of Education to review the formula every three years, making adjustments as necessary, Ruben said.
The Senate is expected to debate the bill further this week. A similar bill remains in committee in the House of Delegates.