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The Baltimore Sun

A record $3.3 billion in new local and state school spending during the past five years largely has gone toward the hiring of new teachers, raising salaries and lowering the ratio of students to teachers, according to a new report to the Maryland General Assembly.

At the same time, the number of students passing state reading and math tests has increased in every county.

Those increases have been significant even for minority and special-education students and particularly for students learning English for the first time.

The 2002 legislation behind these increases, known in education circles as Thornton, increased state and local education funding by nearly 50 percent and was designed in part to even the playing field between wealthy and poor school systems.

MGT of America was hired through a $2 million, three-year Maryland State Department of Education contract to find out where all the new money was going and whether it was making a difference. The report released yesterday at the state school board meeting was interim.

While Thornton funding provided an 80 percent increase in state funds, local jurisdictions increased their contributions to the school budget by only 34.2 percent.

Some Maryland state school board members were critical of the report at their meeting yesterday, saying that it did not answer the question of how much money had been spent to help low-achieving students.

The report's authors said it was difficult to isolate how much of the money is being spent on low-achieving students who are receiving a regular curriculum.

But school board President Dunbar Brooks said MGT at least should attempt to make a rough estimate of the dollars spent on specific groups of students, including minorities and those in special education. It would not be hard, he said, to estimate how many of the new teachers have been placed in low-performing schools, and how much new money had been channeled to Title I schools or those schools with a high number of poor students.

"This study does not shed light on the most critical issue: How much money has gone to low-performing students?" said Matthew Joseph, executive director of Advocates for Children and Youth.

Joseph said his organization sees major problems with the report.

He does not believe MGT should use the state test scores to measure whether the dollars have been well-spent.

Changes in the scores on the national tests, he believes, would be more relevant because those tests have been around much longer than current state tests.

Jerry L. Ciesla, a senior partner of MGT, acknowledged it is difficult to know whether the increase in school funding translated to better test scores.

But he said the state's students are doing better as a whole, noting that some are making greater-than-average gains.

Of the $3.3 billion increase, the state portion was $2 billion from 2002 to this school year. This year the state increased aid by $1.3 billion.

Overall, state funds to education rose by 80 percent over five years.

In contrast, local and county governments increased their budgets on average by only 34 percent.

There are wide variations in those local increases. Wealthy Montgomery County increased its funding by the largest percentage every year, while much less affluent Somerset County increased its schools budget by 5.7 percent over the five-year period.

Meanwhile, federal funding to Maryland increased by less than 1 percent over the five-year period.

Baltimore County increased its local budget for schools by only about $750 per pupil over five years, the second-smallest increase of any in the state except Queen Anne's County.

Worcester County had the largest increase. Funding increased by $2,250 per pupil over the same period.

The county posted some of the largest gains on state tests, particularly among middle-school students.

MGT said it was impossible to separate the impact of new Thornton dollars from that of county money, so the report deals with where all new money was spent.

But most of the new money - about $1.8 billion - went to teacher salaries and benefits in order to keep salaries competitive and attract more highly qualified teachers, according to the report.

The teacher-to-student ratio has decreased significantly, from one teacher for every 16 students, to one teacher for every 13.6 students.

Legislators will be briefed later this week on the report. The final MGT report will be due next school year.

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