Congress gave state governors wide discretion in allocating funds for education from the federal stimulus package passed this week. But in Maryland, Gov. Martin O'Malley's top priority must be to preserve the progress state schools have made in raising student achievement and test scores. That means forestalling the need for layoffs and program cuts and funding the kinds of renovation and refurbishment projects that will lead to continued improvement.
Mr. O'Malley faces a crucial test in deciding how best to apply the approximately $1.8 billion in federal stimulus money earmarked for education here. Before the stimulus was approved, he had proposed a series of drastic actions that would have kept state education spending essentially flat next year by cutting $140 million in mandatory and discretionary increases primarily through changes to the state's Thornton school funding law. That radical fix might have helped plug the state's short-term budget deficit temporarily, but it also would have wreaked havoc on school districts, especially in Baltimore and Prince George's County, where educators struggle to meet the needs of large numbers of poor and minority students.
Faced with a projected $80 million shortfall, Baltimore schools would have been forced to lay off hundreds of teachers and central office workers, increase class sizes, eliminate art and music instruction, defer maintenance projects and close many after-school programs - all at a time when the increased support made possible by Thornton was just beginning to show results.
With the infusion of stimulus money, Mr. O'Malley can now afford to restore those cuts; more important, he's been given a breather to reconsider whether changing Thornton's provisions is truly in the state's best interest. The law not only has played a crucial role in education reform statewide, as evidenced by the high marks Maryland recently won in several national surveys, but also in redressing the historic disadvantages suffered by the state's poorest districts. The latter have posted some of the biggest improvements since Thornton went into effect.
The governor has been given a golden opportunity to restore stability to education funding across the state and build on the progress schools have achieved, and it is imperative that he use it wisely. Eventually, this recession will end, and when it does, Maryland schools should be in a position to emerge from it stronger than ever.