ANNAPOLIS – It’s up to the people to determine whether the Maryland public school system will be adequately funded, said the chairman of the commission assigned to overhaul the state’s school financing system.
Facing an economic downturn, the commission led by Alvin Thornton is looking for ideas about how to fund its recommendations, worth an additional $1.1 billion in state funding by fiscal year 2007.
A public hearing will be held at 7 p.m. Monday in Annapolis about the proposal. That information will be included in the final report, due to Gov. Parris N. Glendening in December.
The Commission on Education Finance, Equity and Excellence will be briefed at its meeting today about potential revenue sources, including raising taxes and legalizing slot machines.
“This is a once-in-a-decade opportunity. You can’t find any more valuable (education) data compiled in once place, at one time,” said Thornton, an associate dean at Howard University’s political science department and former Prince George’s County school board chairman.
“It will be up to the people to decide” what’s funded, he said. “I do think there is an appetite out there for equitable education.”
State funding for public education is about $2.9 billion a year, and is scheduled to increase $700 million by 2007. The additional $1.1 billion is needed in part to provide adequate funding to schools with a higher concentration of students living in poverty and to those students with special education needs and limited English skills.
The commission is recommending more funding for the state’s poorer districts, which would give some counties triple the amount of others. For example, Prince George’s County would receive about $305 million in state aid in 2007 while neighboring Montgomery County would get about $70 million, according to the report.
“What we expect any state to address is to make sure that disadvantages are not something that result in inadequate education,” Thornton said.
The next step is finding ways to fund it.
The state will face a projected $1.7 billion deficit by the end of fiscal year 2003 because of falling revenues, according to information released by the General Assembly’s Spending Affordability Committee in late October.
Already, Glendening ordered about $205 million worth of cost-containment measures for the next two years. Agency budgets were cut 1.5 percent, $65 million in approved capital projects was deferred and all hiring, except for security positions, was frozen. Additional cuts may be made after the December revenue estimates come out.
The commission earlier ruled out proposals to provide $2.8 billion in additional funding and decided to phase in the recommendations over five years to help account for the economic slowdown.
“I do think the commission is being fiscally responsible if you look at the compromises,” Thornton said.
In addition to new revenue sources, the commission will recommend existing funds be redirected to ensure proper funding for education, according to the first draft of the commission report.
“The question is whether or not the leadership of the state will respond,” Thornton said. “The only thing we can do is provide the most powerful argument possible.”
The governor has already increased the education spending about $1 billion from when he took office seven years ago, said Michael Morrill, a spokesman for the governor.
“He believes that education investment is the highest-most priority,” Morrill said. “We have a very different situation next year because of the budget.”
A Senate bill introduced to the General Assembly last year based on recommendations the commission made in its interim report excluded additional funding.
The commission decided to include suggestions about revenue sources in its final report in part because some members are anxious the economic downturn and Glendening’s recently announced budget cuts may impact this year’s recommendations.
“We’ve got to find a way to fund this and it doesn’t matter what the economic times are,” said commission member Sen. Robert Neall, D-Anne Arundel, at an earlier meeting. “We’re going to have to run a public school system. This commission will have failed if the General Assembly approves it with no additional funding.”