ANNAPOLIS – A lack of money brought defeat for dozens of school-related bills in the Maryland General Assembly session that ended Monday, slowing down education reform in the state.
But lawmakers may be hedging their bets. The most significant school reforms are expected this October when the Commission on Education Equity, Excellence and Finance, also known as the Thornton Commission, makes its final recommendations.
The General Assembly appointed the seven-member group in 1999 to study how and in what areas money for education is allocated by the state. Its interim report was made this past December, and those recommendations made their way into House Bill 950 and Senate Bill 719.
The bills called for an additional $133.3 million in 2002 for special education; transportation of disabled students; and other programs, including full-day kindergarten, teacher mentoring, and the Maryland Academic Intervention and Support Program, which works to improve student performance. It also called for the extension of funding for certain programs by one year.
All new money was removed in a change to Senate Bill 719, which finally provided an extension of current funding for those programs, including improvement of Baltimore schools and Prince George’s County school construction.
The new version of the bill also established a different way of allocating $7.5 million of the $19.5 million available in 2002 for the Academic Intervention and Support Program, which also prepares students for high school assessment tests needed to graduate.
Under the new version, Gov. Parris N. Glendening must still give a minimum amount of funding for certain education programs, including early education and teacher mentoring.
House Bill 950 never got a committee vote, and another similar bill never got a vote on the floor.
The amended version of Senate Bill 719, with only part of the Thornton Commission’s recommendations, was passed unanimously by the House and Senate.
At least one delegate complained about the way parent requests for special education funding were treated. The funding was excised.
“It’s an embarrassment for me as a member of the Thornton Commission,” said Delegate Jean Cryor, R-Montgomery.
“The number of children that need this help will continue to grow,” she said. “When you don’t take care of the needs you have, they don’t go away. They just get bigger.”
Legislators may be waiting to vote on other bills that would reform kindergarten through 12th-grade education until the commission submits its final report, said Delegate Sheila Hixson, D-Montgomery, Thornton Commission member. The issue is largely a matter of lack of funding, she said.
“We would have liked to see something done now, but in the real world, this is where we are,” Hixson said.
“People are waiting for a new structural way of funding public education,” said Alvin Thornton, commission chairman.
Glendening’s budget included $30 million for early education and more than $250 million for school construction.
But with $1.3 billion in the budget for campus construction, it was a higher education year, said Sen. Barbara Hoffman, D-Baltimore, Budget and Taxation chairwoman and Thornton Commission member.
“It wasn’t an education year, because the money wasn’t there,” Hoffman said.
Some progress was made, legislators say.
“Education reform is not based solely on funding,” said Delegate Howard P. Rawlings, D-Baltimore, also a Thornton Commission member.
For example, lawmakers passed a bill to strengthened accountability in Prince George’s.
“We’re still moving in the right direction,” he said. “But we’re restrained by our economic reality.”
The focus on higher education was not necessarily a bad thing, said Delegate Nancy Kopp, D-Montgomery.
“Personally, I think it was time to place an emphasis on higher education,” she said.
With the increased funding put towards scholarships and enhancement of colleges and universities, Kopp said, efforts were being made to bring the state back to the level it was before the recession.
But changes to K-12 education are questionable next year, depending on revenue, Kopp said: “I wouldn’t be surprised if we did sort of the same things next year.”
Education funding is determined ultimately by Glendening.
“We can try (to get funding) until we’re blue, but if he (Glendening) didn’t put it in, it’s not going to happen,” Hoffman said.
“He set the tune, he set the agenda,” Cryor said.
There is doubt among some legislators that the budget will be able to meet all of the Thornton Commission’s recommendations next year. While there was a $1 billion surplus last year, Glendening spent much of it. A $300 million deficit is expected in 2003, according to the Department of Legislative Services.
Glendening is making no commitment as to which recommendations he will include: “We’re going to wait for the final report and see what they (commission members) request.”