School cut unfair, unwise

The Baltimore Sun

Something is happening in the Baltimore public schools that has been missing for a long time. Enrollment is rising and attendance at school fairs is heavy, as a new constituency of families demonstrates willingness to bet on our public schools - putting their children's futures on the line. We see, too, a rising tide of hope for and faith in our schools among our civic, philanthropic and business leaders. Families and business leaders alike are inspired by an energetic schools CEO who demands accountability, and is getting results - like record gains on standardized test scores at all grade levels, and the lowest dropout rates and highest graduation rates since the state began keeping records in 1996.

Is this, then, the time to back away from fair funding for the city's schools? Clearly not. And yet that is the reality of Gov. Martin O'Malley's budget.

As America and the world seek to manage their way out of a debilitating recession, Maryland, too, should focus on both immediate and long-term fixes to high unemployment, stagnant growth and overall bleak economic indicators. Thriving states have thriving metropolitan areas, and Maryland can only gain by recognizing Baltimore's role as an economic engine. Keeping that engine primed must be a priority for the state, and the state must recognize that the now-achieving Baltimore schools are the producer of our future workers, homeowners, citizens and taxpayers.

The proposed state budget for fiscal year 2010 would reduce direct state aid to Baltimore public schools by more than $23 million despite an increase in enrollment of 1,000 students over last year. A budget that cuts that much money at a time when city schools are making undeniable progress is hard to swallow. These cuts erode our state's commitment to equitable funding of education. And the fact that the cuts undermine not only the immediate capacity of the schools but also the long-term economic health of Baltimore is cause for alarm.

Proposed cuts for city schools were accomplished by "tweaking" the formula for fair funding established through the hard work of the Thornton Commission. When the formula is tweaked, the result is not simply a single year of cuts but a ripple effect of funding shortfalls for years to come. To balance the state budget by backing away from our commitment to making sure kids in one county have the same shot at a decent education as kids in another county - as the proposed budget suggests - falls short of the Thornton Commission's standard for fairness and prudence.

Clearly, Governor O'Malley and the General Assembly have their hands full as they try to balance their budget. And yes, Baltimore's public school system has a troubled history that has long invited skepticism from lawmakers and the general public.

But we challenge anybody familiar with the achievements of city schools CEO Andres Alonso to justify that kind of skepticism now. He has begun the difficult job of right-sizing the district and redistributing resources - sending more money directly to schools - to better educate Baltimore's kids and, by extension, generate better returns on the public's investment. Schools that work have the power to reverse the flight of taxpaying homeowners from Baltimore. Full, fair funding for our city's schools will help revive our economy, strengthen the tax base and produce the revenue necessary to a thriving city and state.

It is time to reset expectations in Annapolis about who will fight, and how hard, for the Baltimore schools. We believe change is possible; we have seen it. The standards set by the Thornton Commission and the economic promise of a viable school system demand full and fair funding of city schools. We will not stand by and allow our students - and our city's future economy - to be shortchanged.

Mark Fetting is chairman and CEO of Legg Mason. Tom Wilcox is president and CEO of the Baltimore Community Foundation. His e-mail is

twilcox@bcf.org.

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